Rockville Little Theatre’s ‘Bad Seed’ questions a problematic play

The show's 1950s gender dynamics have not aged well, but the intriguing production sparks conversation.

Bad Seed tackles timeless questions. What truly makes an evil person? Do people do harmful things because of nature? Or is it a result of their environment? Rockville Little Theatre’s production of Maxwell Anderson’s Bad Seed had me asking these questions, but not for the reasons one might think. 

Rhoda (Morgan Slattery) and Christine (Lizzie Bartlett Holman) in ’Bad Seed.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

Bad Seed tells the tale of Rhoda, a seemingly normal, kind ten-year-old, and her mother, Christine. During Act I, we find out that a classmate of Rhoda’s has been killed, and that Rhoda may know more about it than she lets on. As we learn more about Rhoda, we also learn more about Christine, who unlocks more about her past in doing so and questions what Rhoda is truly capable of. It’s a difficult play, riddled with unnatural dialogue and painful 1950s perspectives, and saddled with a static set and long runtime to boot. Rockville Little Theatre’s production is an eager effort to make a badly written play palatable. But when the show’s age and gender dynamics appear inappropriate from the opening scene and continue only to gain unsettling traction as the plot unfolds, I find it extremely difficult to focus on Rhoda as the Bad Seed in question. 

Leroy (David Dieudonne) and Rhoda (Morgan Slattery) in ‘Bad Seed.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

The play’s central problem is that it is riddled with distressing portrayals of paternity. Every female character refers to their father almost exclusively as “daddy,” and every older man in the play seems to find it impossible not to comment on Rhoda or her mother’s smile. A particularly egregious line comes after Rhoda (Morgan Slattery) curtsies to Mr. Tasker (Vince Terlep).

TASKER: That’s the kind of thing makes an old bachelor wish he were married.
RHODA:  You like little girls to curtsy?
TASKER:  It’s the best thing left out of the Middle Ages!

I’m not sure whether such exchanges are intended to be read as a cutesy father-daughter talk, which would be problematic in itself, or if they are written intentionally, introducing the audience to the misogynistic undercurrents permeating the play. Perhaps there is a different aim altogether, but I constantly noticed how the more “respectable” men in Bad Seed act in increasingly alarming ways without consequence. 

With material that feels inappropriate at best and actively harmful at worst, it is easy to see the challenge that the cast and crew are working under. Natalie McManus (Monica Breedlove) and Kat Binney (Mrs. Daigle) rise to the occasion, breathing life into the show and energy to the stage with every entrance. Lizzie Holman (Christine Penmark) is sympathetic and convincing as a worried mother. She makes the most of her nuanced moments, and I wish the script had allowed her more of them. Of course, Morgan Slattery portrays Rhoda’s imitation of empathetic human emotion with cleverness, and she is terrifying in the moments where the facade falls. 

The atmospheric elements of the play are also intriguing, with fantastic scene changes that draw the audience back into the ominous emotional tone of the play. The excellent and eerie sound design (Aaron Skolnik) and lighting (Stephen Deming) are expertly juxtaposed with the sterile, classic, sitcom-like set (William Kolodrubetz and Harlene Leahy). Costumes (Linda Swann) and hair and makeup (Malca Giblin) are constant reminders of frightening 1950s ideas of perfection evoked in the play. In a straight proscenium play, horror and suspense elements are difficult to employ, but the technical designers of Bad Seed continually brought me back into their twisted, creepy world. 

Rhoda (Morgan Slattery) in ’Bad Seed.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

All involved work hard to make that world impactful, putting in effort so that Director Pauline Griller-Mitchell’s central question bubbles under the surface throughout: why is Rhoda the way she is? How does someone become capable of causing so much damage? In Rhoda’s case, it seems more clear: she is on the receiving end of harmful behavior every day, and watches the men with status in her life get away with it. She’s figured out how she can do just the same if she plays the role those men want her to play. I love that Griller-Mitchell’s direction made this obvious to me, but I wish she’d done more to show if that was her intention, or better yet, put the men in the show under the same line of questioning as Rhoda. Why are they the way they are? Did society mold them to feel it necessary to comment on a ten-year-old’s appearance? Or are they simply born that way? 

Bad Seed has sparked this kind of conversation about misogyny with everyone I’ve seen since, but I wish I knew for certain that the cast and crew of Bad Seed wanted to point out those harmful gender inequities. I hope they put on the production to actively begin a discussion about it, but regardless of intention, it has still led to those conversations, and that in itself is invaluable.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Bad Seed runs through February 6, 2022, presented by Rockville Little Theatre performing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville, MD. Tickets ($22 adults, $20 seniors and students) are available online or by calling the box office at 240-314-8690.

COVID Safety: Rockville Little Theatre’s COVID safety policy is here.

Rhoda Penmark: Morgan Slattery
Col. Kenneth Penmark: Todd Mazzie
Christine Penmark: Lizzie Holman
Monica Breedlove: Natalie McManus
Emory Wages: Tom Schiller
Leroy: David Dieudonne
Miss Fern: Sandhya K. Kidd
Reginald Tasker: Vince Terlep
Mrs. Daigle: Kat Binney
Mr. Daigle: Peter Rouleau
Messenger: Alex Batselos
Richard Bravo: Stuart Rick

Director: Pauline Griller-Mitchell
Producer: Laura W. Andruski
Assistant Director: John Bartkowiak
Assistant Producer: Teresa Gilcrist
Stage Manager: Aaron Skolnik
Sound Designer: Aaron Skolnik
Master Carpenter: William Kolodrubetz
Set Designer: William Kolodrubetz
Light Designer: Stephen Deming
Costume Designer: Linda Swann
Set Décor: Harlene Leahy
Properties: Harlene Leahy
Hair & Makeup Designer: Malca Giblin
Assistant Stage Manager: Christine Hurst
Sound Operator: Sam Kuhr

On directing ‘Bad Seed,’ a thriller about an evil child, at Rockville Little Theatre (Pauline Griller-Mitchell interviewed by Laura Andruski)
Rockville Little Theatre announces 74th season


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