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Play Review: ‘The Bad Seed’ Brings Spine-Chilling Fun to Vail-Leavitt in Riverhead

Watch this terror classic at E. Farmingdale's Theater 294, or locally, just in time for Halloween.

Halloween season is creeping up on us with ghouls and ghosts that seem to swirl through early darkening skies. Theater 294 in East Farmingdale adds to this haunted spirit with its latest offering, the chilling terror tale, The Bad Seed. The production will make its way east to Riverhead for limited, three-show run at The Vail-Leavitt Music Hall on Saturday and Sunday, October 27–28.

Maxwell Anderson first adapted William March’s ominous, 1954 dramatic novel for the Broadway stage that same year starring Patty McCormack in the role of Rhoda Penmark, along with Nancy Kelly, Henry Jones and Eileen Heckart. The feature film, directed by Melvyn LeRoy, followed in 1956 with McCormick, Kelly, Jones and Heckart reprising their roles. McCormick, Kelly and Heckart received Academy Award nominations for the film.

At Theater 294, we step into the world of seemingly sweet eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, played by Chloe Keil, and are completely taken in by her innocent demeanor, complete with blonde braids and pristine, red-polka-dot dress as she tap dances around her living room—a child without a care in the world. Keil’s performance is spine chilling.

Alicia James, Chloe Keil, Charles Calabrese, Lynda Gaug in
Alicia James, Chloe Keil, Charles Calabrese, Lynda Gaug, Photo: Allison Keil, Courtesy Theatre 294

But we soon learn that all is not as it appears to be. The play opens with Rhoda’s father Kenneth Penmark (Robert Oliver) kissing his little girl and his wife Christine (Alicia James) goodbye as he goes off to military duty. Christine is apprehensive about her husband’s departure, admitting, “I’m not very self-sufficient.” This foreshadows dire events about to unfold, and her inability to deal with them. James’ dynamic change from doting mother to someone fearful and suspicious of her own child is aptly disturbing.

Grandmotherly type, Monica Breedlove (Lynda Gaug), who is the Penmarks’ landlord and neighbor, enjoys indulging Rhoda with gifts—this time she gives the child a garnet-imbedded locket and promises to replace the garnet with turquoise, Rhoda’s favorite gem. The precocious youngster asks if she can have the garnet in addition to the turquoise, and Monica responds, “She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it.”

Chloe Keil and Alicia James in
Chloe Keil and Alicia James, Photo: Allison Keil, Courtesy Theatre 294

It’s as if a dissonant organ chord is hit with this remark—it’s the first indication that Rhoda gets what she covets and allow nothing to stand in her way. Gaug’s gullible Monica is a perfect companion for conniving Rhoda who confides that she lost the penmanship competition and medal to a schoolmate, Claude Daigle. Monica tries to ease the child’s disappointment, but Rhoda turns eerily resentful, spitting out, “It was mine, the medal was mine!”

We learn tragedy hit the Daigle boy when he drowned at the wharf during a school picnic. His body was found with bruises about the face and hands, presumably due to hitting pilings. Rhoda was the last to see Claude alive, but she doesn’t appear particularly upset by the loss of her classmate.

LeRoy (Charles Calabrese), a simple-minded caretaker at the Penmarks’ apartment complex, becomes a threat to Rhoda when he points out, “You don’t even feel sorry for that boy.”

Charles Calabrese (LeRoy) and Chloe Keil (Rhoda) in
Charles Calabrese (LeRoy) and Chloe Keil (Rhoda), Photo: Allison Keil, Courtesy Theatre 294

Enter Mr. Daigle (Norman Greene) and the drunk, distraught Mrs. Daigle (Adrienne Pellegrino) who hysterically blurts out, “It was no accident!” Pellegrino startles as the grieving mother. Her agony is riveting.

Has Rhoda done something unspeakable?

With mounting tension, the action escalates to a climactic and shocking ending that leaves the audience gasping.

The Bad Seed continues at Theater 294 in East Farmingdale (294 Farmingdale Road, aka Route 109) with performances this weekend, Friday and Saturday, October 19– 20 at 7 p.m., and on Sunday, October 21 at 3 p.m. Visit theater294.com or call 516-531-3525 for tickets and info.

If you can’t make it to Farmingdale, watch The Bad Seed at The Vail Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead (18 Peconic Avenue) on Saturday, October 27 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and on Sunday, October 28 at 3 p.m., just in time for Halloween. Visit thevail.org or call 631-727-5782 for tickets and info.

Visit badseedtheplay.com for more info about the play and these local performances.

Barbara Anne Kirshner is the author of Madison Weatherbee-The Different Dachshund, a children’s book and musical. She is a regular contributor to DansPapers.com.

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