Friday, March 11, 2016

At the Phoenix Theatre, Steven Dietz's new play shows where strained family values and cult allure meet "On Clover Road"

Stine tells Kate how the mother-daughter reunion must go down.
It's not hard for a parent's idea of the relationship with a child to overtake the actual relationship. So much idealism is invested in it, along with the expectation – even the duty — of control. When the disparity becomes too great, what's really going on between generations can be totally obscured, leading to a sudden family rupture.

That's what Kate Hunter faces  in "On Clover Road," Phoenix Theatre's latest National New Play Network "rolling world premiere" production. A single mom keeping personal demons at bay, she has been searching for her runaway daughter for four years. The daughter, Jessica, has been taken up by a religious cult, and, at the end of her rope, Kate engages an "exit counselor" to get her back.

Steven Dietz applies his skill at dramatizing deeply conflicted emotional states to the vexed topic of runaway children and the cults that feed on their emotional needs.  How free should a teenager be to forge bonds to replace shattered family connections? How inviolable is an adolescent's independence,  given her susceptibility to coercion far more absolute than what she endured at home?

At an abandoned motel along a road probably made redundant by a nearby interstate, Kate has to submit to Stine, the man she's hired for the kidnap caper and subsequent deprogramming. Jen Johansen captured Kate's wariness and the stress of her embitterment. The portrayal of a woman trying to build up strength in all her weak places, while mustering the severely threatened strength she has already, was unerring.

Under Courtney Sale's direction, the tension between the desperate mother and Stine is wound up to the snapping point from the start. Rob Johansen sounded the right notes of command, shot through with evidence of Stine's woundedness.  On opening night Thursday,  it was impressive how much we felt the manipulative deprogrammer's neediness in the way he moved and in everything he said. Being a control freak with a personal agenda is no easy gig. Stine's elaborate plan to return the girl to her mother bears all the hallmarks of the depersonalization that cults exercise upon their initiates. Only gradually will we understand how deep that ironic resemblance goes.

Girl and woman look for evidence of a bond broken long ago.
Judging from three other Dietz plays I remember seeing, the playwright has a knack that goes beyond a good storyteller's getting us to keep wondering what will happen next. From that plateau of curiosity, Dietz ratchets up our interest by keeping both his characters and the audience off-balance. We are compelled not only by a need to know what happens next, but also by gnawing on a concern that can be put like this: "What I thought just happened turns out not to have been what really happened." The audience is thus often put on the same footing as the characters: In "Becky's New Car," we participate in the heroine's decision-making. In "Rancho Mirage" and "Yankee Tavern," we share in the characters' confusion; we are being jerked around, but Dietz is a neat enough craftsman not to leave a mess behind.

There's not much I can say about Mara Lefler as the Girl without treading on spoiler territory. She was wholly persuasive after Stine has thrust her into the scene, hooded and vulnerable. She resists Kate's maternal overtures, reflects cult brainwashing, plays mind games with her that promise both reconciliation and permanent alienation. When we finally learn the purpose of this mind-boggling range of behavior, Lefler's skill in encompassing it all seems particularly astonishing.

As Harris McClain, the cult leader, Bill Simmons comes on as soul-dead confidence man, soft-spoken
Flask dance: Cult leader brings to meeting a tool of his trade.
to the point of inanity, but with the core of resolve that a man filling lost souls with questionable substance has to have. A gift for gimcrack theology that rationalizes rejection of all past ties helps, complete with stipulated stages of advancement toward spiritual perfection. When this facade cracks under pressure, the fault lines run all the way through. Simmons' performance made that clear.

"On Clover Road" takes place in a symbol of American fondness for travel and the transitory nature of our places of rest along the way. Near the start, Kate gazes at the stripped-down room and remarks that it looks like the place misery was born. Jim Ream's bland, brutal set says it all: Misery, even more than evil in Hannah Arendt's famous formulation, is banal.

The Girl recalls long-ago Christmases at the Hunter home, when she had to wrap her own gifts from Santa. And before that, when her long-gone father loved to sing "Good King Wenceslas" in contrast with her mother's fondness for "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Mom's favorite celebrates a special place of comfort and revelation; the other, the adventure of going out of one's comfort zone to find meaning.

"Good King Wenceslas" returns at the end of "On Clover Road." It may have the strongest ethical message of any Christmas carol, and no theology (thank God!). Its last verse is about the challenged security of leading and following once you leave the warmth of home. It's also about authority and trust, which in family affairs remains a live issue, far beyond the circumstances of an obscure king's charity on St. Stephen's Day, in dialogue with his anxious page:

Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how —
I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps good, my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.



[Photos by Zach Rosing]