CATF’s ‘On Clover Road’: Where’s the hero in this thriller?

Characters in new Steven Dietz cult deprogramming thriller seem to have no souls and don’t much seem to care. Result: excitement without emotional attachment.

Actress Molly Carden.
"On Clover Road," by Steven Dietz. Kate's daughter, Jessie (Molly Carden) is not much into being deprogrammed. Or is she really Jessie? (Photo Credit: Seth Freeman)

SHEPHERDSTOWN, West Virginia, July 16, 2015 – You’re a beleaguered single mom. Your only child, a daughter, ran away from home years ago. Now you’ve discovered she’s been brainwashed by a disreputable religious cult.

Your next step: You hire a deprogrammer to save her. But what if everyone involved in the ensuing adventure, including you is deeply flawed, downright evil, a hopeless loser, or all of the above? That’s the essential premise of Steven Dietz’ fast-paced thriller, “On Clover Road,” which had its world premiere performance last weekend and the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF).

Real Also: CATF 2015: West Virginia festival debuts 5 American dramas

Dietz’ two-act play is set entirely within a distressingly filthy room in an abandoned motel located on an the obscure road that gives this drama its title. The set is the marvelously depressing vision of set designer David M. Barber, reflecting as it does the dubious morals and motivations of every single character we meet.

Lee Sellars as Stine.
Stine (Lee Sellars) is an intrepid deprogrammer who attempts to rescue Kate’s daughter. But his motives seem to be a mystery. (Credit: Seth Freeman)

As the play opens, a dodgy-looking Kate Hunter (Tasha Lawrence) and her jumpy, macho companion, known only as Stine (Lee Sellars) enter the room and switch on a dim bulb hanging from the ceiling overhead.

We quickly learn that Kate—a harried, more or less reformed alcoholic single mother—has employed Stine—a self-appointed professional deprogrammer—to attempt to rescue her long-missing daughter from the clutches of a local religious cult operating in the area.

Kate’s daughter, now in her late teens, has been missing for years after running away from home and vanishing without a trace. Kate has somehow succeeded in tracking her down. She now pins her hopes on Stine who promises to snatch her estranged daughter, bring her back to the motel room, deprogram her and liberate her from the cult’s brainwashing, and restore her to Kate so the two can re-establish their long-broken relationships.

Each of “Clover Road’s” characters is tough, rough-hewn and on-edge. More than once during the opening scenes of the play, the overly-macho Stine and the aggressively prickly Kate nearly come to blows over Stine’s proposed course of action.

Stine puts himself across as an aggressive, take-no-prisoners deprogrammer and enemy of all cults. The haggard, guilt-ridden Kate, worn out by her alcoholism as much as she is by the long search for her missing daughter, is at times more inclined to duke it out with Stine than she is to do what it takes to actually rescue her daughter.

Harris McClain (Tom Coiner).
Kate (Tasha Lawrence) is engaged in an uncomfortable conversation with cult leader Harris McClain (Tom Coiner). (Credit: Seth Freeman)

As the play progresses, we eventually do get to see Kate’s daughter (or is she?) and another girl (Molly Carden and Molly Brown, respectively) both of whom are clearly cultish pieces of work. And ultimately, we also meet Harris McClain (Tom Coiner), the smarmy, absolutist cult leader himself, a virtually self-acknowledged hypocrite who seems to be mostly into the cult racket for sex and money.

Billed in the program as a “thriller,” “On Clover Road” is indeed that. This play has more hairpin plot twists and turns than a back road high up in the West Virginia hills. At any given time in the action, we don’t know who’s really who, who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, or who’s shading the truth.

This dramatic tactic is a sure fire way to keep an audience on the edge of its seats, something this play often accomplishes, particularly during its surprisingly intense outbursts of violence.

But in terms of the dramatic whole, “On Clover Road” is beset by a related pair of problems: its characters are never quite fully developed, and not one of them is in possession of more than the thinnest thread of humanity. As a result, not a single one of the five makes much of a sympathetic connection with the audience. And that’s a real issue.

That’s because, aside from those plot twists and turns, the play’s central character, Kate, is the classic girl or woman in peril. A stock character in many drama and film thrillers and horror flicks, the sympathetic woman in peril immediately grabs the attention and the emotions of the audience.

As a result of this emotional attachment and identification with this besieged heroine, the audience quietly cheers her on, hoping she’ll somehow be able to accomplish the impossible: evade, outwit, or even kill her pursuer or pursuers and bring the story to a happy and emotionally cathartic conclusion.

At issue here: Kate is rather a nasty, bitter person herself, and we’re not sure we like her well enough to care if she survives the building violence long enough to make it to the final curtain.

We should immediately note that this problem is not the fault of Tasha Lawrence. Her volatile, gutsy portrayal of the demon-haunted Kate is most impressive indeed, and physically challenging as well.

Playwright Steven Dietz.
Playwright Steven Dietz. (Courtesy of CATF)

Rather, the problem lies in the way her character is drawn in the script. There are touches of humanity and vulnerability here, to be sure. And as Americans, we all tend to cheer for a character who has once sinned but is now trying to redeem herself. But we are never drawn into Kate’s character quite enough to start pulling for her in earnest and white-knuckling our way into the climax of the play.

A similar problem exists with each and every one of the other spooky and suspicious characters in this play. Again, the actors give these characters everything they’ve got, particular Lee Sellars in his manic, bristling portrayal of Stine. But even by the end of Act I, we don’t trust anyone we’ve seen, a feeling that extends into the second stanza as an additional pair of key characters—equally suspicious—finally materializes.

Thrillers and monster movies are mostly the same on the surface. We bond with the good guys and hope enough of them will endure setbacks, violence and mayhem, remaining alive to finally defeat the evil monster or villain in the end. It’s good guys vs. bad guys, and we want the good guys to win. We want justice to triumph.

In “On Clover Road,” it’s never 100 percent clear if we even have a real “good guy” to cheer for. True, in Kate, we do have an imperiled mom in search of the child she’s lost. But Kate is so flawed that we wonder if we really want to see that reunion take place. Add to this the gradual dawning that the remaining characters in this play border on being psychopaths, and “On Clover Road,” for all its thrills and surprises, leaves us feeling empty and a bit disillusioned as well.

Perhaps this was actually the playwright’s intention. But since the turn of this century, most of us have felt empty and disillusioned with an unfortunate frequency. And as a result, at least for this reviewer, “On Clover Road” simply doesn’t help us to care or take us any place new.

Rating: ** (Two out of four stars)

“On Clover Road” by Steven Dietz continues its run at CATF’s Frank Center Stage through August 1. For dates, times and directions to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, visit the official CATF web site.

For an overview of CATF 2015, check out our CDN CATF preview article here.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17