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Smart and fast-paced, ‘On Clover Road’ delivers chills at nearly every turn

Philip Earl Johnson and Gwendolyn Whiteside in the American Blues Theater production of "On Clover Road."

Philip Earl Johnson and Gwendolyn Whiteside in the American Blues Theater production of "On Clover Road." | Michael Brosilow

Steven Dietz’s thriller “On Clover Road” has more sharp angles than a serrated knife. Every time you think you can see the grim path ahead, the blade slashes out in a new direction.

As thrillers go, it’s not altogether airtight. Dietz’ endgame between bad guys is unsatisfying, as if he couldn’t figure out how to write the deadly finale, so he decided to move the action offstage and let the audience to decide for themselves exactly what happened.

Still, there is much to praise in “On Clover Road.” If thrillers or noir are your jam, you don’t want to miss this.

‘On Clover Road’
★★★
When: Through March 16
Where: American Blues Theater at Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $19-$39
Info: AmericanBluesTheater.com

Much like the novels of Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects,” “Dark Places”), Dietz provides a host of unreliable characters whose versions of the truth are as slippery as a slick of rancid kitchen oil. The location is the only immutable fact. We’re in a no-tell motel that all but reeks of listeria (created with skin-crawling vividness by Lizzie Bracken). It’s on the titular road, a forgotten backstreet to nowhere.

Our hero is the aptly named Kate Hunter (Gwendolyn Whiteside), who has come here to reclaim the daughter who ran away at 13 and has been in a cult for the past five years. Stine (Philip Earl Johnson) is a deprogrammer who has promised to bring the teenager back. Kate or Stine are not entirely who they seem. As Dietz peels away the layers of lies, “On Clover Road” ratchets up the tension to a harrowing level.

Dietz fills the play with the conventions of a thriller: Nobody can be trusted, plot twists keep the audience forever off-balance, violence — real or threatened — hangs in the air like toxic gas. The tropes are recognizable, but director Halena Kays makes every one of them feel unexpected. Her pacing is more taut than a garrote right before it breaks somebody’s windpipe. Kays has long had a gift for creating eerie environments and heightened circumstances. As she did in the masterful “Burning Bluebeard,” she creates a vortex with “On Clover Road.” Terror builds like a tornado, sucking everyone in to its escalating violence and confusion.

Stine’s methods are as chilling as the cult that took Kate’s daughter. The first tools he pulls from his bag: A black plastic bag and a roll of duct tape. He demands Kate turn over her keys, wallet and cell phone, explaining that this is a protective measure. He’s jury-rigged the abandoned room so the doors can be barred both from within and without.

Stine explains what he’ll do with the matter-of-fact delivery of a sociopath. First, he will violently abduct Kate’s daughter. Then, he will break her.

Kays cast is thrilling. As the beleaguered Kate, Whiteside personifies someone pushed to their absolute limit. Humans aren’t built to be this desperate for this long. Kate is operating on a primal level, surviving only because she’s clinging to the delusional hope that her daughter will return to her intact. Whiteside lets you see the cracks as Kate crumbles toward the edge of an abyss.

Philip Earl Johnson stars as a deprogramming expert and, Grace Smith is his latest charge in the thriller "On Clover Road" staged by American Blues Theater. | Michael Brosilow

Philip Earl Johnson stars as a deprogramming expert, and Grace Smith is his latest charge in the thriller “On Clover Road,” staged by American Blues Theater. | Michael Brosilow

As Stine, Johnson turns in one of the most memorable performance of his distinguished career in Chicago. Stine is the man you’re on high alert for when you’re walking alone at night. He’s the embodiment of a threat, even when he’s not saying or doing anything that’s overtly threatening.

Which brings us to Jon Hudson Odom’s star-making turn as Harris McClain, an insurance salesman who has reinvented himself as “The Prophet.” When he speaks, it’s with a hypnotic charisma that pulls you closer even though you know you should be running away. In Odom’s performance, The Prophet is someone who can make you believe that gasoline is holy water, a lit match the key to your salvation.

Finally, there’s Grace Smith as The Girl, an acolyte whose expression becomes a beatific mask when The Prophet is near. Her robotic delivery speaks to a will that’s been neutralized, a girl who has been hollowed out until there’s nothing left but worshipful obedience.

As in all thrillers worth their salt, you’ll feel a sense of weak-kneed catharsis when the final scene of “On Clover Road” lets you check out.

Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.