From a Very Flawed World Comes a Flawless Production

The brutal and humane Frozen , by the British playwright Bryony Lavery, will test your stomach at times. This is the first occasion I can recall thinking it best to warn readers that a play might be too much for some to take.

But that’s the necessary danger of Ms. Lavery’s unnerving moral debate about a pedophile’s murderous abduction of a child and the possibility of forgiveness. What parent could ever forgive their child’s rapist and killer? How do you begin to come to terms with such terrible, Godless acts of violence?

But the playwright also wants us to confront such questions in our own hearts, where unresolved feelings of vengeance and unbearable hurt might reside in other ways that are frozen in time. Horrendous acts of violence happen every day-in wars and public hangings, or in the diet of a newscaster’s relish for a local murder story. In one disturbing sense, Frozen and its story of a mother’s private agony over the abduction of her 10-year-old daughter is the headline news we tend to avoid. It’s both a play of ideas and a metaphor of a world never at peace with itself.

There are only three characters: Nancy (Swoosie Kurtz), who’s the damaged mother in search of understanding; Ralph (Brian F. O’Byrne, the tremendous actor in two of Martin McDonagh’s Gothic plays), who’s the pedophile and child killer; and Agnetha (Laila Robins), an American psychiatrist and criminologist lecturing in England. The three actors are so awesomely fine and honest, they make the drama riveting. (They also almost disguise its flaws, including Ms. Lavery’s more schematic devices.) But flaws or no, this is a flawless, superior MCC Theater production by Doug Hughes of the play, which comes to us via acclaim at the National Theater in London.

By startling coincidence, I have a link with the playwright’s premise for Frozen . She has told how she was inspired to write the play after seeing a TV documentary about the families of the children murdered by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady in one of the most horrifying crimes in British history. The crimes took place in the mid-1960’s and became known notoriously as the “Moors Murders.” My uncle, a leading barrister in England at the time, defended Hindley at her trial.

I remember him explaining to me why it was his duty and burden to defend her. Innocence was presumed, of course, and she was entitled to a defense, though there could have been no doubt about her guilt. Hindley and her accomplice had actually tape-recorded the screams of the children as they tortured them, which is why the nation was so traumatized. My uncle paled when he mentioned the day the tapes were played in court.

“I thought that the families had a kind of peculiar frozenness,” Ms. Lavery told The Times , referring to their profound inability many, many years later-a lifetime later-to “let go” and “move on.”

Yet-and here we get to the heart of the matter and the play-who on earth can blame them for their lasting trauma and sorrow? Who under similar horrifying circumstances could possibly “move on” to that convenient modern insurance against all suffering known as “closure”? In the living hell of memory where ghosts reside, there are unspeakable events that can never be forgotten, and nothing-not even time-can soothe the screams of abused children.

I’ve little doubt that had Ms. Lavery included a child screaming in her play, the issue of forgiving the killer-pedophile would have been dead in the water. It was hard enough to contemplate it, even so. But Ms. Lavery, meaning well, also noted that one of the parents of the “Moors Murder” victims confessed in the TV documentary, “I’m a forgiving man, but I can’t forgive that.” It therefore seemed to her that “he wasn’t a forgiving man.”

But who are we to judge him? There are things we can never know about this man and his limits of tolerance, and mere mortals are not saints. When Nelson Mandela was released from jail after a near lifetime and immediately forgave his enemies, I thought, like many people, that he must be a saint. Because I knew that I, for one, wouldn’t have forgiven my jailers. Yet we know that without such unimaginable generosity of spirit, peace in the world doesn’t stand a chance-just as forgiving the pedophile and killer in Frozen might bring some belated state of grace and hope into the broken heart of the mother.

It’s a demanding play-not that it doesn’t have a dollop of good humor, of all unlikely things. At first sight (and sound), the brilliant Ms. Kurtz’s Nancy might be one of Alan Bennett’s prattling monologues from the suburban hinterland of Talking Heads . “Mother and I,” she points out to us at the outset, “have never seen eye to eye on shrubbery.” The differences between them concern the nurturing of her Clematis montana alba . Trivial pursuits thus cauterize grief. It’s why she recites the helpful handbook of coping with tragedy like a comic mantra. “If You Hold On to Your Rage It Will Consume You.” “Let It Go.” “You’re in a Very Bad Space.” “It’s like listening to a diet and exercise book,” she adds, to laughter.

But when Nancy’s surviving daughter suggests that she should at last forgive the killer of her 10-year-old child to salvage her own wrecked life, she replies that if she met him in jail, she’d take a gun and blow his brains through the wall.

“She was my little girl!” Nancy cries out in her devastation.

“So was I,” replies the surviving daughter.

Mr. O’Byrne is so mesmerizing as Ralph that it worried me. Offering us a friendly tour of his body tattoos with names like “The Grim Reaper,” his unrepentant killer is like a ghoulish peepshow or a specimen of twilight life with his reflexive “Pardon my French” after some foul-mouthed tirade. Is he even human? He’s articulate in certain areas, a neat freak and highly organized man. He always kept a van close by. “It’s convenient-obviously,” he explains, sounding reasonable and sickening. He seems to have feelings , but not many. He regrets the loss of his expensive porn videos; he complains about receiving abusive treatment in prison.

“It’s not right. Oh, no …. “

But when the American criminologist asks him the meaning of words like “regret,” “pity” or “sorrow,” he’s incapable of responding. He lives in a moral vacuum. “The only thing I’m sorry about is that it’s not legal,” he protests.

“What’s not legal?” she asks him.

“Killing girls.”

And at that, I felt like walking out. As I increasingly saw it as the evening went on, too much time and empathy were spent on the killer as opposed to the tragedy of the victim. It’s the playwright’s bold intention, however, to draw a line between “crimes of evil or illness.” Ralph, we learn, has brain damage (and was all too predictably beaten by his father as a child). Should we-and Nancy-therefore forgive him?

For myself, the playwright is protesting too much on the killer’s behalf. The function of the neurotic American psychiatrist in the play wobbles too schematically around him. The always excellent Laila Robins brings more dignity and meaning to the role of Agnetha than, strictly speaking, Agnetha deserves. Her Icelandic-American upbringing and earnest thesis entitled “Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?” clang a bit. Her affair with a married man is more like an intrusion on weightier matters; her grief over the death of a loved one rings true, but is ultimately too handy.

Let’s forgive, at least, the flaws in the play! For without Ms. Lavery’s play, we wouldn’t have come from the theater discussing such issues as forgiveness and the cycle of obsessive despair. In their different ways, all three characters in Frozen are bound together by the tragedy of loss. For the one loses his life in jail; this one lost her daughter to a despicable violent crime; and that one lost her beloved to fate. In the end, I tend to think that not all loss is equal, however, and that the unending sorrow of the grieving families of the victims should be understood and forgiven above all.