On Clover Road

A dark, twisting ride “On Clover Road"

It’s a neo-noir set-up down to the abandoned, scuzzy motel room where it all takes place. A man and woman arrive separately to complete their pre-arranged plan of committing a kidnapping. Two things are immediately obvious: both are hiding something, and neither trusts the other. Their intended target is the woman’s teenage daughter, who left home four years before and ended up in a new-age religious cult. The woman’s name is Kate (Sally Dana), and she’s out of options and desperate. The man goes by Stine (Michael Storm), and he seems to have a lot of experience with this particular kind of job. He makes the rules, she pays the money. We all know what happens next — something will go wrong. Very wrong.

The drama of the setting is the hook, but what makes Steven Dietz’s play On Clover Road so effective is that once he’s set the scene, each subsequent turn of the screw spins the plot in a different direction without going off the rails into implausible territory (for the most part). Kate and Stine are almost too hardboiled to evoke much empathy but their weaknesses could well be our own, which allows Dietz’s script and the talented cast to bridge the gap, especially since he knows just where and when to pull the string taut enough to keep the audience from turning on either character. The ante rises with each revelation about both of these unpleasant people, and grows even higher with the entrances of the daughter, the cult leader, and another young woman under his sway. The threat of violence feels constantly imminent, and when it arrives it comes in unexpected ways. To say more would tarnish the pleasure of watching it happen, and On Clover Road has enough dark pleasures to put the audience on the edge of their seats and keep them there for 80 minutes. Rachel Goldberg and Nancy Kimball rotate in the roles of the girls, and Adam Elder plays the cult leader with just enough implausibility to make him enough like the real thing.

The latest in San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series (which presents new plays in smaller spaces than the company’s main stage), the company’s co-founder Susi Damilano directs the action with cinematic intensity, while the creative team of Jacquelyn Scott (set design), Jessica Bent (lighting), Theodore J.H. Hulsker (sound), and Natalie Barhow (costumes) effectively make the story work convincingly within the confines of the motel room.