Theater review: Good Company’s clever ‘Bad Seed’ asks nature and nurture to arm wrestle. Which one wins the match?

Can children be born bad?

Such a sentiment seems an affront to our cherished ideal of innocent babes being catapulted into the world, blank-slate style, their little heads primed to be pumped full of such goodies as knowledge, cultural norms and moral principles. (Or brainwashing, depending upon whether you consider your parents to be wacko.) The argument over nature vs. nurture is a longstanding one, with a good number of people, I suspect, weighing in on it precisely down the middle: A person’s upbringing has a major influence on how they turn out later in life, but sometimes, no matter the circumstances, you wind up with a rotten apple from a very fine tree.

Pictured above: Finley Van Vleet in ‘Bad Seed’ at the 2nd Space Theatre. Photo: Edgar Olivera/Good Company Players

Which brings us to “Bad Seed” at Good Company Players’ Second Space Theatre. (It runs through June 11.) It’s a fascinating period-piece examination of whether children, indeed, can be born bad.

It turns out that the phrase “bad seed” was popularized by a popular 1954 novel by William March about a little girl who might be connected with a shocking crime. The book was made into this play (by Maxwell Anderson) and later a big Hollywood movie. Here was a storyline that made you wonder if an 8-year-old girl could actually be evil. I’m guessing that readers and audience members must have been excited about getting a low-brow thrill, at least according to the standards of the time. Could it be that “Bad Seed” was the “M3GAN” of the mid-’50s?

The GCP production is anchored by a feathery smooth performance by Amalie Larsen as the mom. It’s a slow-burn type of role, and she’s terrific. Her Christine Penmark is a poised, brisk, well-put-together homemaker devoted to her daughter, Rhoda (played at alternating performances by Campbell Sloas and Finley Van Vleet). On superficial glance, the daughter seems perfect: She’s smart, neat, pretty and unfailingly polite to adults. (“I wish I had her as my daughter,” one character coos.) Yet Rhoda’s all-consuming poise begins to feel brittle. Are there any actual feelings behind those perfect curtseys?


The misgivings about Rhoda become more blunt after a little boy in her private-school class – who happened to beat her in a penmanship contest a few weeks before – drowns at a class picnic. When the upset mother presses her daughter to share her feelings about the tragedy, Rhoda counters with an unexpected and not at all socially acceptable response: “I thought it was exciting.”

At that moment both the audience and mother realize that something is wrong.

There is a definite period-piece feel to the show, and not just because of David Pierce’s immersive set and Damen Pardo’s detailed costumes. Director Karan Johnson keeps the actors firmly in the period as well. These characters act a little more formal and restrained than we’d likely see in the present day, and the action unfolds in a straight-laced and linear fashion. Johnson (mostly) keeps the material from veering off into melodramatic goofiness. The only major tonal flub at the performance I attended was a malignant smile, bordering on camp, that was flashed at both the end of the first and second acts, and that seemed too broad for the rest of the show.

Edgar Olivera
Edgar Olivera

At top: John Sloas, left, Brian Rhea, Amalie Larsen and Annette Smurr in a scene from Good Company Players’ ‘Bad Seed’ at the 2nd Space Theatre. Above: Campbell Sloas and Billy Anderson in a scene from ‘Bad Seed.’

Still, the eccentric cast of supporting characters is anything but stodgy, starting with the neighbor lady, Monica (a very fine Annette Smurr), who lives with her brother, Emery (John Sloas). A devotee of Sigmund Freud, she is the play’s mouthpiece for psychoanalysis. (She laughingly explains that her brother is likely a repressed homosexual and that she also has incestuous feelings for him.) Her rock-star treatment of Freud is amusing and, with the hindsight of the future, naive. (One of the pleasures of the play is the feeling you’re being immersed in the intellectual currents, or at least the pop-culture zeitgeist, of another era; what is it that we believe today, I wonder, that future audiences will look back on with bemusement?) Then there’s Reginald Tasker (Brian Rhea), a novelist who conveniently drops by to articulate the “nature” side of the argument: What if there is a genetic component to violence, in that children can inherit the predisposition from their parents? He offers some persuasive arguments. Just as some genius mathematicians and musicians develop as child prodigies, there’s no reason to believe that sociopaths can’t start early, too.

Other smaller character moments add depth and tension to the storyline, including Renee Newlove as a grieving mother and Billy Anderson as the embittered handyman, who believes that Rhoda’s innocent-child routine is an act.

The key is Larsen’s vivid turn as the mother. In different hands, the character (and thus the production) could have pivoted to soupy melodrama. Instead, Larsen slowly lures us into territory that feels chilling and plausible – even when the storyline doesn’t head that way. In a captivating monologue about a repressed childhood memory, Larsen takes us nearly all the way back to her beginning – when the seed of all this was planted. From something tiny, big things can grow.

Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled Campbell Sloas’s name. In addition, a misprint in the program listed an incorrect costume designer, which was picked up in the review. It is Damen Pardo.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (3)

  • John Sloas

    It should be Campbell Sloas, not Campbell Sloan. Thanks.

      • John Sloas

        No worries. Thank you for seeing the play!

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