Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Adam Langer
What gets lost in all the media coverage and national hand-wringing about preteen murderers, playground shooting sprees, and purportedly lost innocence is that childhood savagery is hardly a new phenomenon. Though things seem to have gotten grislier over the past decade, there have always been grade school sociopaths with collections of knives and BB guns who delighted in throwing rocks at animals, terrorizing kindergarteners, and slipping LSD into bake-sale brownies. Granted, most of these youthful terrors eventually straightened out, channeling their brutality into more socially acceptable forums like consulting and the practice of law. But given the right circumstances, sufficient exposure to Mortal Kombat, and ready access to grandpa’s gun collection, they might well have committed murder and wound up on the cover of Time.
Australian playwright Hilary Bell takes as inspiration here a number of recent gruesome child murderers, most notably the two ten-year-olds who lured a two-year-old English boy away from his mother and brutally killed him. In Wolf Lullaby, the mutilated body of a little boy who’s been strangled, bitten, and stabbed repeatedly with a pair of scissors is discovered. The evidence suggests a child murderer, and suspicion eventually falls on nine-year-old Lizzie Gael, a seemingly sweet but mischievous and troubled girl. Lizzie seems a rather typical nine-year-old, fond of hopscotch, dolls, and the usual ghoulish nursery rhymes. But her innocent exterior conceals a world of inner torment: Lizzie is racked by guilt and self-loathing and tortured by nightmares in which she’s swallowed by a wolf. Becoming increasingly antisocial, she begins shoplifting and strangling birds at school. And when her mother finds drops of blood on her shoes, it seems Lizzie may have committed murder as well.
What would drive a little girl to murder? Bell proposes a series of familiar theories only to reject them. A miserable home life? Lizzie’s parents, Angela (a hairdresser) and Warren (a cabdriver), are separated and Warren is absent a good deal, but both of them shower Lizzie with affection, and there’s no evidence of physical abuse. Psychosis? Lizzie’s nightmares are frightening enough but don’t seem far removed from common experience (and the wolf motif is never really developed or explained). Socioeconomic conditions? The action is set in a small industrial town in Tasmania and Lizzie’s parents are certainly not well-off, but Lizzie seems adequately provided for, and far more affluent people have committed crimes just as despicable. Heredity? As affable, stern Sergeant Ray Armstrong proposes, “The simple fact is that some kids are born evil.” But Bell in her playwright’s notes rejects this hypothesis as oversimplified: “By purporting the idea of children being ‘born evil,’ we are simply abdicating societal responsibility.”
Many who are quick to place blame for such crimes, Bell remarks, fail to look at the culpability of society as a whole, “where banal acts of evil are committed every moment.” And her argument is initially persuasive. The trouble is that Bell seems so convinced that the phenomenon of a child murderer is too complex to ever be explained that she doesn’t give her audience enough evidence to draw their own conclusions. The fragmentary structure of Wolf Lullaby–it proceeds almost like a TV drama, from one chilling short segment to the next–allows only glimpses instead of a whole. The parents’ relationship isn’t adequately fleshed out. Lizzie herself remains a cipher. Even when she confesses, one wonders whether she’s truly guilty or just trying to placate her mother and Sergeant Armstrong. Bell doesn’t so much demonstrate how complicated the issues are as she deliberately makes the situation murky so that we can’t come up with a satisfactory explanation. She notes that she didn’t write the play “in order to explain why such an atrocity occurs–who can say?” But by giving us only a little bit more information than one might garner from reading a long tabloid account, she ensures that it’s impossible to say.
And when the playwright asserts that Lizzie’s crime is not all that far removed from what she calls “children’s natural violence,” she’s treading on thin ice. “How many of us can claim as children to have never committed an act of savagery on something–or someone–smaller and weaker?” Bell writes. “Talking to people during the writing of this play, I was continually astonished by how close so many had come to killing or being killed.” Bell bolsters this claim with a comment by one of Lizzie’s parents that all kids commit violence. “You have to.” And granted, anyone who’s seen kids playing will have trouble believing in the myth of children as innocent, angelic creatures. But referring to my own childhood crime blotter–which consists of administering one grundy, throwing approximately three punches in two school-yard fights, pilfering a Cliffs Notes on Great Expectations, and engaging in a conspiracy to place a tack on a rabbi’s chair–I do not find Bell’s implied dogma of equal responsibility and capacity for cruelty acceptable.
The play is strongest when Bell soft-pedals her agenda and concentrates on the crises that arise when a child is accused of murder. Warren’s and Angela’s reactions, which range from utter disbelief and outrage to helpless self-reflection, are distinctly credible, and their interactions with Lizzie are presented in convincing detail. The changes Sergeant Armstrong undergoes–ultimately he cannot bring himself to despise the cute little murderer he’s put behind bars–are particularly well realized. And the scenes of Lizzie’s interrogation include finely executed moments of dark comedy, emphasizing the absurdity of trying to communicate with a child in a very adult setting.
Anna D. Shapiro’s stark production in Steppenwolf’s new garage performance space is appropriately creepy, and all four performances are excellent. Lawrence Grimm and Amy Landecker are especially sympathetic and credible as the parents, sentenced to a nightmare they don’t deserve. Jeff Still as Armstrong is imposing and fear inspiring yet as kind as Officer Friendly. But most impressive is ten-year-old Christina Lepri in the incredibly demanding role of Lizzie. One might well wonder how this sort of emotionally draining role will affect such a young, talented actress; at the very least, one expects a slew of nightmares for her as well as for a good chunk of the audience.
Certainly the shock value of the story alone–a child accused of an unspeakably heinous crime–is enough to cause chills and intriguing postshow discussions. But inspiring good conversations is not the same as creating great drama. Ironically, in her eagerness to debunk intellectual theories in Wolf Lullaby, Bell has sacrificed art to sociology.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Michael Brosilow.