"Life is an adventure in forgiveness," said journalist and peace activist Norman Cousins. Few if any plays exemplify this aphorism like British playwright Byron Lavery's remarkable 2004 Tony nominee Frozen. And one can hardly imagine it handled more expertly than director Susan E. Evans and her Eastenders Repertory Company have done at the Eureka Theatre.
Lavery's most well-known play is set in present-day England and features three main characters: Ralph, a serial killer who kidnaps and murders a young girl; Nancy, the girl's mother; and Agnetha, a New York psychiatrist who travels to England to examine Ralph and present findings on the cranial physiology of serial killers at a conference. Through monologues -- and eventually dialogues -- the three lives slowly but steadily connect in such a compelling way that the two acts (which range between 60 and 90 minutes each) seem to whoosh by.
A key storyline involves Nancy's 20-year path from anger to forgiveness, which stretches from her daughter's disappearance through a five-year search and onto a long night of grief. Eastenders co-founder Suzan Kendal plays Nancy with sheer guts, tireless empathy and a keen ear for the unlikely sense of humor that Lavery has injected into the script.
Likewise, the critical relationship between Craig Dickerson's damaged, convulsive Ralph and Sandra Weingart's dispassionate and anxiety-ridden Agnetha highlights the problems of facing evil via the distance of professionalism. Dickerson and Weingart tackle the roles with a powerful sense of instinct that's especially magnified when she needs to clear any touch between them -- from a head examination to a hug -- with a phantom prison guard. Weingart also portrays great discipline as her role switches modes between examiner at the prison and presenter at a conference.
Kim Tolman's set design hits on various metaphorical strains with some wonderfully nuanced accents. She contains each character on his or her own blue mini-stage situated on the main stage, each of which vaguely resembles an ice floe. A diagonal line of blank book pages crossing the stage's back wall signals time passing, while forgiveness seems to burst wildly but just out of reach as a cloud of oversized white flowers hanging high overhead.
As for Evans, she's simply and skillfully done what a director should do: create an ideal physical and emotional environment that lets the main elements of the play -- the actors -- carry the narrative in its essential form. That's extremely important with a play as sheer and elegant as Frozen, and Evans and Eastenders deserve the full support of San Francisco's theatre audiences.
Frozen runs through Sunday, September 14, 2008 at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit ticketweb.com.