Little Rhoda Penmark is the perfect child — sweet, angelic and unfailingly polite. She only has one bad habit: she kills people.
Patty McCormack chilled both Broadway and movie audiences when she played this precious little murderess in Maxwell Anderson’s adaptation of William March’s novel “The Bad Seed” back in the mid-1950s. Since then the role has become like catnip for aspiring pre-teen actresses, including my daughter.
After a lengthy absence from local theaters, Rhoda has surfaced again, this time at the Westminster Community Playhouse, in a probing and dramatically stunning revival where director Lenore Stjerne has elicited some riveting performances from a splendid company.
The courteous little cutie at the center of all the commotion is Maya Somers, an accomplished 11-year-old actress who manipulates those around her like an adult veteran. She skillfully contrasts her moments of sweetness with those of homicidal fury in a remarkable performance.
Veronique Merrill Warner is equally brilliant in the demanding role of Rhoda’s tormented mother. She’s particularly effective in the extended scene during which she learns the awful truth about her lineage from her father, solidly enacted by Rick Werblin.
Her effusive landlady and confidante, Monica, is given a chatty, tension-easing performance by Candy Beck, probably the most relatable member of the cast. Joe Yacoubian creeps out his audience as the devious and slightly demented custodian Leroy.
Cassidy McMillan, in the showy role of a dead boy’s drunken, grieving mother, is exceptionally strong, but her performance is neutralized by her habit of physically indicating on nearly every line. Mary-Pat Gonzales impresses with her natural rendition of a tightly wound spinster school teacher.
Richard DeVicariis projects eloquence in the role of a mystery writer. Gil Morales is fine as Monica’s grumpy brother and Tom Mynar enacts McMillian’s calm, patient husband.
One key element is missing, however — Rhoda’s incessant piano playing as her mother grieves over a grisly murder. The haunting offstage music, which finally sends Christine over the edge, is drowned out by all the hysteria on stage.
“The Bad Seed” is an antique, nearing 70 years, but its power to chill and enthrall hasn’t diminished. It’s a lengthy but generally well-constructed revival at the Westminster Community Playhouse.
IF YOU GO
What: “The Bad Seed”
Where: Westminster Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple St., Westminster
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through July 28
Cost: $20 to $22
Information: (714) 893-8626; wcpstage.com