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Intimate drama Material is difficult, but 'Frozen' asks worthy questions

You will not enjoy "Frozen" but you might like it.

It's a strong piece of theater about the weakest piece of humanity. It will gnaw at your insides. It will challenge your logic. It will prod and push you. For these reasons, and the exquisite performances of this cast, it is a play you need to see, however unenjoyable you find it.

The Red Thread Theatre company pulls off a soaring feat with Bryony Lavery's Tony-nominated play. It is a simple production of modest means, but it does what any well-written play can do when it has been given the proper attention: it plays small and lands big.

It is staged in the Marie Mayday Theatre, a wonderful space on the Canisius College campus that goes as much unnoticed as some of the plays performed on it. Its intimacy allows the work of co-directors Eileen Dugan and Josephine Hogan to seep into us, as though we were hearing it in our own world. That's where the discomfort takes hold.

The play revolves around the horrific kidnapping, rape and murder of young Rhona. Her mother Nancy, 10 years later, is fractured. But she is stuck in that horrible after-phase of trauma where your reactionary muscles are no longer numb, but the option to move forward still feels treasonous. She's angry.

Ralph, the man responsible for Rhona's death, has been arrested, but not for his crimes against her. No, he has done this to other girls -- seven other girls, at the least. His psychopathy is revolting. But psychiatrist Agnetha is curious. She studies criminal behavior, and subscribes to the idea that Ralph, and criminals like him, should be understood. That they may not be at fault for their psychotically driven actions.

Dugan co-stars with Lisa Ludwig and Eric Rawski. They make a sharp, motley trio. Each gives a performance that capitalizes on his or her strengths, but that leaves room for refinement.

If Dugan is known for her argumentative and principled martyrs, here she goes on a bloody rampage against an impossible enemy. Dugan shows the sad intertwining of vulnerability and delusion.

If Ludwig is adept at showing us a paper-thin facade, her character's struggle for heroism, her mask is off. The internal bruises are woefully brought to the outside, as evidenced so beautifully in the first five seconds of the play (seriously, don't be late to this one).

And if Rawski, that master of devilish charm, auteur of sly sin, can scare us as Captain Hook or Bill Sykes, roles he owned earlier in the season, here he shakes our bones to a grinding halt. It might not be a stretch to say that Ralph is a terrifying man. But someone else might have made him simply evil. Rawski makes him terrifying, lonely and desperate. It is a masterful turn that won't leave you without scars.

Lavery's play is careful to not be melodramatic; it does not need to be. But where his characters and their circumstances are beyond complication, they also have their moments of simplicity. It's not difficult to see where he's going with things, and even if it's interesting to watch his characters find their way there, he still gives away too much at the wrong times. Some mystery in this tale of life's mysteries would have been more satisfying.

The second act feels like a scribbling of character notes, the questions the playwright had after finishing his first half: What happens after Nancy meets the man who raped and murdered her daughter? How do Agnetha's findings affect her own personal relationships? And most pertinently: What does it mean to forgive?

These are the questions you ask yourself at intermission, not only because you've been taken to their doorstep, but because they're where your heart and mind go. We all want answers. We all want explanation. We all want light.

But ultimately they're questions whose answers aren't solutions, whose answers provide no useful insight.

The first half of this play makes us want to know, but the second half tries too hard to tell us.

> THEATER REVIEW

"Frozen"

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

WHEN: Through June 2

WHERE: Presented by Red Thread Theatre at Canisius College Marie Maday Theatre, 2001 Main St.

TICKETS: $10-$20

INFO: 867-3102, www.redthreadtheatre.info