You're about to enter a world of opposing factions, false prophets and questioned beliefs — and you don't know who to trust. No, this isn't the presidential primaries. It's the rolling world premiere of Steven Dietz thriller On Clover Road, which opens on March 23, as part of San Francisco Playhouse's award-winning Sandbox Series. In the tense play, a mother, Kate Hunter, enlists the help of a shady private investigator to locate and retrieve her missing daughter from a cult for de-programming at an abandoned motel on, you guessed it, Clover Road.
SF Weekly chatted with SF Playhouse co-founder and the play's director Susi Damilano about bringing this powerful production to the stage, adding thrills to theatre and the connection between On Clover Road and the presidential election.
[jump] You don't shy away from provocative plays at San Francisco Playhouse. On Clover Road is no different.
We love provocative. [Co-founder and Artistic Director] Bill English and I, we get bored easily, so we want to be stimulated. We want to be thinking. We want to make people feel. That's really what we're doing with the theater. He coined the phrase “the empathy gym,” and we truly believe in that. We want people to come here and feel something for the characters on stage and hope that that changes their outlook on things — that they can go out into the world and make it a better place.
On Clover Road is gripping and intense. I'm a big Investigative Discovery fan, and this play feels like a storyline from a true-crime documentary.
If I see those words written about a play, movie or book, I'm in. That's what we love, too. It's the thrill that a lot of people don't realize that theatre can give you. They think it's limited to movies. But to be in the audience, sitting next to somebody, and it's a live person on stage giving you that thrill, you just can't beat that because you have that exchange of energy that you don't get when it's not live.
How did this play get into your hands?
We are part of the National New Play Network. If the theater wants to do a world premiere that's part of the network, they say, “Hey I want to do this play,” and if at least three other people in the network say they want to do it, then it gets done. This was one of those scripts.
I fell in love with it because Steven Dietz wrote it, and Bill and I met with a Steven Dietz script. So immediately the very first project we ever did was a Steven Dietz play, and so when I heard Steven Dietz, I said, “Give me that script. I want to read it.” Everything he does is so fun, has twists and turns and keeps you on your toes. You have no idea where he's going. So, of course, I read the script and I'm directing this one because there's nothing I like more than a thriller. It also has a great story of a mother-daughter connection, which I think is just beautiful. I think the audience will be in this motel thriller, but at the same time, their hearts should be affected, which is exactly the type of show we love to do.
How did you and Bill English work out who was directing this project?
In this case, since he gets to make the final choice of picking the plays, I said, “If you pick that one, then I better get to direct it.” [Laughs]
Did you see any of the previous showings of On Clover Road?
Yes, the first showing in West Virginia at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, last summer. We'll be the second showing.
How will your production differ from the original?
We have to rent a space — The Rueff — to do our Sandbox Series. It's a big, open room, and by virtue of it being an open room, it's going to be a four-sided production, so the seats will be in the arena, making it completely different. I want the audience to feel like they're flies on the wall because they'll literally represent the walls of the hotel room. So, hopefully, it's gonna feel really claustrophobic. [Laughs]
How hands-on is Steven Dietz with the production?
He's going to come down for the first three days of rehearsals. It's a world premiere, so he has the opportunity to change anything he wants to change. But I think, in this case, because the script is really solid, he'll be answering a lot of questions for the cast. But sometimes, when I've asked, he's told me what he's intended, and other times he wants us to decide.
Steven Dietz included notes, describing how he wants the cult and the prophet to be perceived by the audience. Can you elaborate on that?
I think what he's saying is, “Don't make a judgment. These are not bad people.”
I think even calling it a cult, he'd probably say that's our judgment of it, where you don't join something where you say, “Ooh, I'm going to join that cool cult.” Instead, you go, “I really believe in this person's beliefs, and I really like this person, so I'm going to follow what they preach.” We see examples of that all the time. Christianity could be called a cult. I think that's how I interpret his note, as don't cast some villainous looking guy and make the girls seem like they have no power over their fate. He wants it more ambiguous.
Going back to Steven's note, the guy I cast as the prophet, he's going to be amazing, because I think about how Ted Bundy was really handsome and got women to get into his car, because they were like, “Oh, a cute guy. I'm in.” So this prophet is not only really handsome, but he's nice, so he looks like everyone's favorite yoga instructor. So why would you be afraid of him?
I couldn't breathe during the final scene because you really don't know which way it will go — happy or horrifying.
Dietz doesn't tell us which way it will go. The lights go out and we wonder, “Is this the end, or is this the beginning?”
As a director, I'm going to have to make a choice, like do I tell the audience what the end is? But I think I want to go with a blackout and then when the audience goes out to get a cocktail, they decide among themselves and we'll see who's an optimist and who's not.
Is this play topical?
The play really questions values and following “false” prophets. Like you said, these protagonists are willing to kill to get their way or, at least, say they will kill, and that's pretty darn relevant right now. We didn't pick the play because of presidential elections, but I would say it does fall in line with that topic and makes you question who you believe and even what you believe before you sign on to someone else's beliefs.
On Clover Road, March 23-April 16, at The Rueff, upstairs at The Strand, $20, 1127 Market, 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org.