The audience that gathered for Denise Flemming's one-woman stage production last weekend witnessed a tour de force that will be remembered here for a long time to come.
The New York City actress stunned the Central Lakes College theater crowd with a scalding-hot script about child abuse -- Flemming's self-written, self-directed "Winterkill" -- and a performance as energized as a lightning strike.
The actress, who holds a day job with a Manhattan hotel, brought her show to Brainerd on Saturday -- free of charge -- for the Crossing Arts Alliance's first-ever "arts crawl."
The hourlong drama dissected the "effects of bad parenting" as experienced through Flemming's fictional character, Deborah Taylor, and conveyed by Deborah's multiple personalities.
The setup is this: The police have detained Deborah for questioning in a yet-to-be-identified legal matter.
Dressed in black, appearing on stage with only a stool, sitting under the harsh glaze of spot lighting, Flemming introduces a character obviously fearful of her circumstances.
"How do you know so much about me?" Deborah blurts in fear of her inquisitors, unseen and unheard by the audience. "Have you been following me?"
Slowly but surely, and at an ever-increasing pace as the stress of Deborah's situation mounts, a new personality emerges on stage, each revealing a little bit more about Deborah's life experience.
First, there's Delores, a 9-year-old with an unspeakable secret about life with mother Rita and the "daddy" who rewards her with "candy" for being good.
Then there's Debbie, a teen-age drug addict and prostitute-in-the-making, and Desere, a streetwalker who relishes the idea of following in her mother's footsteps.
Dominique appears as a middle-aged religious zealot -- the "voice of reason, of guilt," Flemming said in an interview -- demanding forgiveness and the right to "assassinate my memories."
By play's end, Flemming has revealed through her characters "that the things we experience as young people are truly the things that are the catalysts for the rest of our lives," she said later.
In the case of Flemming's Deborah Taylor, a lifetime of parental abuse and neglect resulted in multiple personality disorder and, eventually, the ultimate crime: the murder of a parent by a child.
Flemming, trained in theater at the University of Iowa, developed the play about 15 years ago after reading about a case of a teen-age boy murdering his parents.
The "Winterkill" she presented to her Brainerd audience is a scaled-back version of the one she normally delivers in New York City venues, the actress-writer said.
"The subject matter is so difficult onto itself. I don't want to give an audience any more than I think they can take," she said, adding that Midwestern audiences are often less prepared for the tone and substance of New York City's street talk.
"I don't want them to shut down to the point where they shut out the importance of the message, the unfortunate realities of abuse," said Flemming, who grew up in a loving Midwestern family of four.
"My message is about the powerful effects of bad parenting," she added, "and about the responsibility adults assume when they choose to have children.
"If for any reason they make a sizeable mistake, the effects are forever, no matter how the offspring attempt to mask them," she said. "They live with it for the rest of their lives."
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