Where: American Blues Theater at Stage 773,
1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through March 16
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Steven Dietz’s noir thriller “On Clover Road” has more plot twists than a corkscrew, and American Blues Theater’s spine-tingling production will have you on the edge of your seat.
The familiar tropes of the genre start with the set, the grubbiest room imaginable in an abandoned motel in the middle of nowhere. It is so well designed by Lizzie Bracken that you can almost see cockroaches crawling up the walls. Murky light filters through a haphazardly boarded-up window in Alexander Ridgers’ lighting design. The doors to the outside and the bathroom are fitted with brackets to be barred by two-by-fours. A frame lined with neon bulbs that crackle on between scenes heightens the claustrophobia, and Rick Sims’ ominous sound design ramps up the tension.
The taut 90 minutes begin with a woman and a man entering this room. She, we learn gradually, is aptly named Kate Hunter (Gwendolyn Whiteside), a distraught mother seeking her daughter, Jessie, who ran away four years ago at the age of 13 who is believed to have joined a cult called “The Farm.” He is Stine (Philip Earl Johnson), the deprogrammer to whom Kate has given all her savings and who says he’s found Jessie and plans to kidnap her and bring her to the room for deprogramming.
But before that, Stine demands that Kate give him her keys, wallet, and cell phone. He pulls the curtains off the windows and unscrews the light bulbs from their sockets, protective measures he insists. He takes a large black plastic bag and roll of tape out of his doctor’s bag and examines the contents of the cardboard box of Jessie’s childhood belongings Kate has brought to trigger her daughter’s memories, among them a photo album and white teddy bear.
He also instructs Kate on how she’s supposed to behave and cross-examines her about her past, revealing that he knows all about her history of alcoholism, bad parenting, and the trust fund she can’t access unless Jessie gives her consent or dies. On top of all this, Stine makes crude remarks, telling Kate he’s a pig and that the process is more likely to work if she hates him. Johnson is so creepy and menacing in a low-key way that we wonder why Kate hired him (without vetting him, it turns out) and why she doesn’t leave. She almost does at one point but is so desperate to be reunited with Jessie, she decides not to go.
We sense this is a big mistake, especially given Whiteside’s convincing vulnerability as Kate, though as the situation goes from bad to worse, her survival skills kick in and she proves to be more resourceful than is initially apparent.
She’s not the only one who isn’t what she seems. Having warned Kate that she’s likely not to recognize her daughter after four years, Stine leaves and returns with The Girl (Grace Smith), locking Kate in the bathroom, so she can’t interfere with his harsh measures. But Kate pounds on the door until she’s let out and, seeing The Girl, swears that this is not her daughter. Yet The Girl, who has the cult lingo down pat, knows everything that Jessie would, recognizes the teddy bear, and so on.
So, is she or isn’t she Jessie? Will Stine’s method succeed, or for that matter, is he even who he claims to be? Does he have a secret agenda?
To answer these questions would be churlish and spoil the fun. But I can say that the leader of the cult, Harris McClain (Jon Hudson Odom), called “Father” or “The Prophet” by his followers, does appear. A former insurance salesman, he has a smooth style designed to seduce young women by reassuring them of their worth, while exploiting their insecurities, and in Odom’s oily performance we can see how he does it.
For all its nail-biting build-up, though, “On Clover Road” is ultimately a letdown. The big climax takes place off stage, leaving us wondering exactly what happened. A sort of coda is equally inconclusive. It’s almost as if Dietz ran out of steam or couldn’t decide exactly what to do. In the end, I found the trip to the titular lane disappointing despite Halena Kays’ fast-paced direction, the fine acting, and the striking staging.