Premiere issue Autumn 2002

Facing up to parental responsibility

A Knife in the Heart
Written by Susan Yankowitz
Directed by Kirsten Brandt

Sledgehammer Theatre
Saint Cecilia's Playhouse
Sixth and Cedar, San Diego, Calif.
Through Nov. 24

It's one of those unquestioned stereotypes: Whenever there is a mass murder or high-profile killing of any sort, we reflexively blame the parents. Particularly the mother.

It is this tendency to blame the mothers of killers that playwright Susan Yankowitz tackles in "A Knife in the Heart," in its West Coast premiere at San Diego's Sledgehammer Theatre.

Yankowitz has done a nice job of balancing the competing sets of pain when violence is committed. She avoids any temptation to downplay or dismiss the suffering of the victims — and yet, also manages to point out the very real grief and guilt the parents of murderers go through.

What also makes "Knife" so effective at facing up to the question of parental responsibility in raising kids who end up committing horrific acts is that Yankowitz offers up no pat answers. She contents herself with asking some wrenching questions.

After Donald Holt murders the governor of his state, his mother must confront her own feeelings of guilt and mourning — for in a way, the son she raised and thought she knew is now dead, replaced by this monster inhabiting her son's body.

A Knife in the Heart

As her son's attorney and the psychologist he hires question her about her son's childhood, Mrs. Holt struggles to understand how this could have happened — how the child she and her husband wanted and loved could have done something so very wrong.

Kirsten Brandt's production of "Knife" does a wonderful job of keeping the focus on those questions of who is responsible for murderers. The acting is understanted, almost muted — and it is this restraint that makes the telling of "Knife" ever more effective.

Rosina Reynolds is painfully moving as Mrs. Holt. The bewilderment, the loss, even the rage her character feels toward her son all come through Reynolds' performance. There is a constantly shifting flurry of emotions to confront, and Reynolds captures them all — from the confusion of how to greet old friends in the days after her son's arrest, to the anger she feels toward media figures demanding the death penalty for her boy.

William Todd Tressler doesn't have much of a role as Mr. Holt — if there's a weakness to Yankowitz's script, it's in the two-dimensional cutout character of the father. When given a chance to explore his character's reaction to their son's actions, though, Tressler brings forth anguished portraits of a father in mourning for a lost son.

David Stanbra provides a disturbing interpretation of Donald Holt — presenting him as a psychopath, utterly without remorse or compassion for his victim and his family. It is eerie, but is an effective foil for the mother's reaction.

Melissa Ficociello's set design is minimalist but works well at serving as a variety of locales — bedroom, butcher shop, prison, courtroom. David Lee Chutbert's lighting complements the dramatic tension, and punctuates the action.

Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.

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