Twist ties would envy the plot arc of On Clover Road. It forces you to put on the mental brakes and back up to reevaluate what you just saw, but by the time you've wrapped your mind around something, another curve leaves you reeling. While this makes for an exciting mental exercise and good entertainment, it does detract from the play's serious subject: parent-child dynamics and the pseudo-acceptance lure of cults. Just set that aside and enjoy the ride.
On Clover Road is the Phoenix Theatre's latest offering as part of the National New Play Network rolling world premieres. This is the second play by Steven Dietz that the theater has produced through the program (the previous was Rancho Mirage).
The show is grounded in excellent character portrayals by Jen Johansen (Kate, the mother of a runaway daughter who was sucked into a cult), Rob Johansen (as Stine, a "deprogrammer"), Mara Lefler (a teenage cult member), and Bill Simmons (as cult leader Harris McClain). Director Courtney Sale has the characters tearing at each other — physically and emotionally. The three "adults" express their flawed natures willingly or not, but Lefler, as an innocent, gets to wow the audience with her changeable acting chops.
That's not to say that the Johansens and Simmons aren't up to snuff. The three actors have lauded reputations in Indianapolis's theater community for good reason. Rob is intense to the nth degree, making you wonder if he's as nuts as the cultists. Simmons again gets to explore the deviant side of humanity, following in the steps of his previous predatory character in The Nether at the Phoenix. He comes across just as confidant, alluring, and smarmy here as he did there. Jen comes across as a hot mess single mom and recovering alcoholic who is willing to do anything in her desperate attempt to do the right thing. The actors add nuance to characters that aren't as fleshed out on paper as they could be, creating a tense and riveting story because you just can't wait (or anticipate) what they will do next.
Jim Ream created a set — a decaying room in an abandoned motel — that captures the rotting integrity of the four souls on stage.