Rhoda Penmark is just eight years old, but she’s still a psychopath. She doesn’t let anything — or anybody — get in the way of getting what she wants. She’ll even resort to murder if she has to.
Rhoda’s one of many intriguing characters in The Bad Seed, a psychological thriller being presented July 5-8 as part of Armstrong Atlantic State University’s encore summer theater season.
“It’s really different from anything we’ve done here,” says Michelle Drake, an AASU alumna who’s directing the production. “We do a lot of comedy. The Bad Seed has a lot of roles that are interesting for a director. I’ve really connected with it.”
The play will have a special appeal for people who remember the novel and film, both released in the 1950s. Drake has chosen to keep the setting of the play back in the 1950s, but the theme is as contemporary now as it was back then, she says.
“It asks, ‘Is evil inherited or environmental?’” Drake says. “That’s still a question people are asking today.”
The Bad Seed is a 1954 novel written by William March, who died just one month after its publication. It was nominated for the 1955 National Book Award.
The novel was adapted by Maxwell Anderson into a successful and long-running Broadway play. Mervyn Leroy directed the film version, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography.
Nancy Kelly, who played Christine in the film, was nominated for Best Actress, while Patty McCormack, who played Rhoda, and Eileen Heckart, who played one of Rhoda’s victims, were nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Heckart was awarded a Golden Globe for her performance.
The central character of the story is Rhoda’s mother, Christine, who comes to realize her daughter is a murderer. Christine was adopted, but she begins remembering incidents she experienced and people she knew before the adoption.
She comes to realize that her daughter’s compulsion to murder might actually be inherited. Christine has a truly dark secret in her past.
What should she do? Rhoda may be a murderer, but she’s only a child. Christine’s dilemma is at the heart of The Bad Seed.
Making the task even more difficult is that Rhoda is an adept con artist. She is charming and delightful around adults, fooling them completely.
However, other children are repelled by Rhoda because they can sense something terrible is wrong with her. It was a shocking theme for the 1950s, and remains no less shocking today.
Drake wants her cast of 10 to act as naturally as possible. “Some plays require performances that are over the top,” she says. “This show is more about subtlety. I want the actors to be natural, more real, so the audience can connect with them.”
A recent graduate of AASU, Drake was a theater/performing arts major. “I’ve done everything here,” she says. “I used to work on the sets, and I’ve also done acting. I tried to do everything.”
Soon, Drake will move to Houston, Texas. “I’m going to try acting,” she says. “I’m going to try and make it.”
Before she began acting, Drake was a singer and dancer. “I always wanted to be the lights,” she says.
The challenge with The Bad Seed for Drake has been telling actors who are older than her what to do. “I’m younger than them, and it’s difficult to be stern,” she says. Drake took a mandatory directing class at AASU. “I didn’t want to take the class at all,” she says. “But I love directing.”
When Peter Mellon, director of the AASU theater program, wanted to find directors for the summer season, he contacted Drake. “In directing, your vision comes to life,” she says.
At age 19, Sage Tipton is playing the much younger Rhoda. “I always get cast playing younger characters,” she says. “I’m kind of used to playing younger roles.
“My character in The Bad Seed is very sneaky and sly,” Tipton says. “She’s a very good liar. She’s manipulative. She wants to be in control of everything.”
Rhoda’s true character will sneak up on audiences. “They aren’t going to know what to think,” Tipton says.
“At first, they’re going to think she’s sweet and they’ll like her. Then they’re going to realize something’s up. They’re going to know something the other characters in the show don’t know.”
Tipton recently played Meg in Little Women. She moved to Guyton with her parents a few years ago, and recently relocated to Savannah so she can attend AASU, where she is a theater/performing arts major.
“I want to pursue an acting career,” Tipton says. “I’m excited to see where I can go.”
Jordyn Schafer plays Rhoda’s mother, Christine. “I’ve played a lot of mothers on stage,” she says. “Christine sees what’s happening and doesn’t know how to stop it. She wants to protect her daughter, but she wants to stop her.”
Schafer is a senior at AASU, and also is majoring in theater/performing arts. She wants to pursue a career in acting after she graduates next spring, but has a fall-back plan if it doesn’t work out.
“I’m also getting a massage therapy degree,” she says. “That’s something I can do between acting jobs.
“I’ve been doing theater my entire life,” Schafer says. “Acting jobs come and go, and actors don’t always get paid well.”
Originally from Mandeville, La., Schafer moved with her family to Savannah when she was in the seventh grade. She has had roles in Les Miserables at the Savannah Community Theatre and in Picnic at AASU.
“I was in Three Cornered Moon, which we closed with last spring,” Schafer says. “I played a quirky mom in that one.”