Saturday, April 2, 2016

"On Clover Road"

On Clover Road
Steven Dietz

Sally Dana as Kate
The cloak of the film noir genre drapes over everything.  The motel room is cheap, barren, and covered in carpet that looks dirty.  She enters in a brown trench coat clutching a purse for dear life; he is in a scuffed-up leather coat with a black bag, latched and secretive-looking.  The lighting is somehow not quite bright enough until a spotlight shines on a subject being drilled with questions, and then the shadows fall large and threatening on the opposite wall.  And although the action is live before us, there is the feeling of a black and white, B-movie of the 1950s where crime in in the air.  Tension is all around us even as the first words are being spoken, and it is soon clear that nothing may be as it seems in this secluded end room of the Clover Motel on ... of course, On Clover Road, the name of the Steven Dietz rolling world premiere being currently presented by San Francisco Playhouse as part of its Sandbox Series.

Kate is frantic to reunite with her now-seventeen-year-old daughter, Jessica, who left home in teenage rage four years prior, never to return but later to show up at the 5th House Center for the Awakening Mind, a known cult compound under the power of Harris McClain, aka “The Prophet.”  She has hired surreptitiously a cult-buster, Stine, who is about to abduct her daughter and bring her to this deserted motel to begin deprogramming.  Clues abound that this is not going to go well.  Stine tells Kate, “There will be poison in you after this,” and “You may be lucky to get your daughter back, but you may find having her is harder than not having her.”  When the daughter does appear, Kate denies knowing her; and she is told this is a common syndrome of delusion parents like her have.  In the next ninety minutes, the handsome Prophet himself will appear as well as a second girl who has been under his spell for most of her teenage years.  And the mysteries, twists, turns, and dead-ends of this dark tale go into full swing as who is good and who is evil, who is confessing and who is lying, who is in cahoots and who is a mortal enemy changes with the shifting of shadows.  At every turn is something said that cannot be trusted, a hope dashed and crushed, and a possible bond that breaks in cynic derision.  Noir is the genre through and through.

Sally Dana is the chief protagonist and mother, Kate.  She is the one person always in front of us, and she intensifies in spellbound performance as each minute passes.  We think we know her, and yet we find out maybe we do not.  The range of emotions she projects is wide and deep; and there are scenes where her actions cause audible gasps in her raw, daring, gripping acts of sheer desperation. 

The man she has hired to bring her daughter to her is Stine, who up front warns her, “You don’t want to bond with me; I am a pig ... a goddamned animal.”  Michael Storm’s Stine is an engrossing mixture of cunning expert and sleazy madman who has ghosts in his own closet and past hurts engraved in that rock-hard face of his.  The nemesis that he is trying to help Kate out-maneuver is the surprisingly debonair and dapper, calm and caustic Harris, or the Prophet.  Adam Elder is stunningly calculating in his every move as he mesmerizes and manipulates (or so he thinks) those in his presence. 

Rachel Goldberg and Nancy Kimball are the two young girls in worship of their beloved Prophet (or are they?).  One is the missing daughter, Jessica; and one is her friend, Angela.  The two actresses switch roles between the two girls in various performances.  Each brings a defiant belief system from her years of cult training, a set of scars deep and seemingly permanent from her long-ago home life, and an emotional aptitude that is so severely thwarted to send shudders down any parent’s back who’s watching in the audience.  Yet at a moment’s turn, each is once again a vulnerable girl of thirteen in ways that can also break a heart or two.

Threading these excellent performances into tightly wound balls that suddenly rip apart the bonds formed and then reform in ways we are never quite are prepared for is the deft direction of Susi Damilano.  She has dug deep and found inspiration in some of the greats of film noir, calling on the likes of Orson Wells and Otto Preminger, as well giving a nod to a suspense master like Alfred Hitchcock.   She then pulls some moves that bring audience members just a bit closer to the edge of their chairs (especially seeing where Kate and her chair go at one point).

Two things keep this production from meeting its full potential.  First and most fixable is the choice of stage and audience positioning in the small, upper, black box of ACT’s Strand Theatre.  While Jacqueline Scott’s motel room setting is appropriately as dire and drab as required, it is much too expansive with the audience facing each other on parallel sides.  More appropriate for this script and story would be a boxed-in, claustrophobic room with audience far out of the scene.

A bigger issue, in my opinion, is a script whose roller-coaster ride of ongoing revelations of relationship, motive, and identity falls off the track far too often.  There are gaps in credibility and understanding; and while there should always be allowance for poetic license, this script at times asks us to give too much credibility to jumps and leaps that in after-thought, cannot be easily bridged.

But a world premiere play often has issues still to be worked out in script.  This cast and director have met the script where it is at this point and have advanced it to a stage noir outing that meets the San Francisco Playhouse high standard we have all come to expect.

Rating: 3 E

On Clover Road continues through April 16, 2016 as part of San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series at The Reuff, The Strand Theatre, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-677-9596.

Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

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