In a boarded-up hotel room in the middle of nowhere, a desperate mother and private investigator join forces to bring a missing girl home. Over 90 minutes, more twists than a country road push these characters further and further from the expected, culminating in a nail-biting finale that satisfies - even if some of the narrative surprises are more confusing than clear.
American Blues Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside leads the cast as Kate. She is believable as a shell of a woman pushed to the brink, having desperately worked to reunite with her daughter for several years prior to the play's start. Whiteside's Kate goes from 0 to 100 emotionally within minutes of the play's beginning, potentially glossing over some moments that could have been quieter and more affecting. I found myself wishing that director Halena Kays and Whiteside would have found a few moments for the actor to pull back. Watching an actor struggle to hold themselves together, for example, can be more powerful than watching them indulge in full-on weeping.
Philip Earl Johnson is excellent as the secretive Stine. He is believable from the start, and like Kate, we quickly see that Stine could be a friend or enemy depending on how these events play out. Johnson is the production's most natural performer, never letting the heightened nature of the script push him into playing his moments too intensely. Grace Smith, as The Girl, is a promising young artist. Like Whiteside, though, there are moments when Smith misses opportunities for more nuanced emotion. It's clear these characters are all on the brink of total collapse, but Johnson is the most successful at choosing when to push his emotions to the extreme. Because of this, his character arc is the most fulfilling when the lights go down at the end of the play.
Halena Kays keeps the play moving, and she has the performers using every dirty inch of Lizzie Bracken's set, which feels so real you may think you can smell the stained carpeting. Gaby Labotka's violence design is at its strongest when at its most subtle - the final, sprawling fight scene was not nearly as taught as the several realistic moments leading up to it.
Overall, On Clover Road is a fun and creepy theatrical experience, and with its easily-digestible run-time, American Blues' latest should appeal to anyone who enjoys sitting on the edge of their seat. Like many "popcorn" movies, Steven Dietz's play is best if you don't try to think about it too much, and there are probably two or three twists too many. But overall the strong team at American Blues has assembled an emotional roller coaster of a piece--one full of twists, turns, and thrills.
Review by Jason Berger
On Clover Road continues at Stage 773 through March 16. Info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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