USC Aiken theater students Morgan Hall, Sydney Fowler and Zac Latham are close friends – now facing surely the biggest challenge of their young careers with the award-winning drama “Frozen.”

The play, produced by the University Theatre of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts, debuts Thursday at the Etherredge Center. The title stems from the idea of “frozen hope.”

The story that unfolds is tragic, horrific and potentially redeeming. British woman Nancy (Hall) is a mother whose daughter goes missing and is later found murdered. She comes in contact with Agnetha (Fowler), a American psychologist who has come to England to pursue her research on serial killers and the root causes of their choices.

Latham portrays Ralph, the killer who targets young girls.

“It’s a challenging show, some heavy lifting for undergraduates,” said director and USCA professor Dewey Scott-Wiley. “I felt they needed to use some of the skills, as it’s an intense play and requires the actors to really focus.”

The play was nominated for a Tony Award in 2004. A review in “Talkin’ Broadway” called “Frozen” a “powerful drama about three people living the human condition… a story that needs to continue to be told.”

Hall and Fowler worked together during the past school year on “Intimate Apparel,” itself a strong story involving race and hope in 1905 New York City.

“Now we’re cranking the intensity to an 11,” said Hall. “This is a crazy, emotional journey.”

Although the lives of the three main characters do intertwine, the actors are often on stage alone, expressing aloud their thoughts, “and that’s hard not to have a partner for those scenes,” Hall said. “The audience is like the partner. The play is going to be amazing with a lot of big ideas.”

The production asks audiences how one gets over something so traumatic – dealing with anger and grief and continuing with life without hating the person who created those awful feelings.

Unlike many plays, Latham said, there obviously was no way he could draw on real-life experiences. Instead, Latham watched movies about murderers, such as Kevin Spacey in “SeVen” and especially the cold-blooded killer played by Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men.”

“The psychology of this goes into pretty good depth,” Latham said. “No actor wants to be hated. I wanted people to like me, but my initial reaction was to be this terrible person. But he’s really a guy who had a bad childhood and was brain-damaged.”

As for Agnetha, Fowler said, the character is well aware of her own emotions, as she’s around people who aren’t conscious of what they’re doing.

“She (Agnetha) spends time with people who don’t recognize the consequences of their decisions,” Fowler said. “But she’s still aware that it doesn’t change the fact that these are serial murderers.”

The audience will empathize with the mother of the girl, said Scott-Wiley. Yet the play becomes more complex as it asks people to consider if Ralph’s crimes are those of illness rather than evil.

“The mother wants to see him and cannot move on until she does,” Scott-Wiley said. “She must learn how to deal with forgiveness and revenge and move on.”

Want to attend?

• Production: The drama, “Frozen,” by Bryony Lavery, produced by USC Aiken’s University Theatre and directed by professor Dewey Scott-Wiley.

• Location and dates: “Frozen” will be presented at the Etherredge Center, 471 University Parkway, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

• Tickets: They’re $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors and faculty, and $7 for students. To reserve tickets, call the Etherredge Center at 641-3305.

• Cast members – Sydney Fowler (Agnetha), Zac Latham (Ralph), Morgan Hall (Nancy) and Alex Newton (guard, Ralph understudy).

• Advisory: This Tony Award nominated play has serious adult themes.