Ciaran Brown, Ethan Brown, Ethan Corder, Nan Elpers, Courtney Doyle in Salvation Road. Photo courtesy of Walden Theatre.
Quick – a biology quiz: What is a slant culture?
Think of a test tube with a certain amount of liquid in it. There’s a limited amount of surface area (where the liquid comes in contact with the air above it) where organisms might grow if they were so inclined, right? But speaking of inclines, if you tilt the test tube, this surface area gets bigger…and the potential for the development of even more plentiful, vibrant organic matter is increased.
Clever name for a new theatre festival, isn’t it? From the looks of the program and the excitement of opening night, Louisville’s Slant Culture Theatre Festival promises a fresh mix of staged performances, improv, interactive workshops, discussions, staged readings and more, all destined to spawn and cultivate new ideas. “A laboratory for uncommon theatre,” the festival features experiments sure to produce memorable outcomes.
D.W. Gregory’s Salvation Road is a play in one act, presented on Walden Theater’s main stage under the direction of Alec Volz. In keeping with the original directive behind the Slant Culture Series of plays to encourage young actors to “seek inspiration from a new angle – inward,” Gregory draws very bravely from sensitive autobiographical material to create a poignant, thoughtful piece. A vibrant, idealistic young woman named Denise (Courtney Doyle) – modeled after the playwright’s own sister – becomes heavily involved with a fundamentalist religious group on her college campus. Her family is unsure of her whereabouts, as she has cut all ties with her former life in favor of devotion to the group’s agenda. The play, narrated by her brother Cliff (Ethan Corder), focuses on the impact this has left on Denise’s family as it follows the efforts of Cliff, his friend Duffy (Chris Lockhart), and his younger sister Jill (Tess Varga) to find Denise and talk to her.
Salvation Road follows a neat narrative arc that is never too predictable, and profound themes are balanced by lighthearted moments and funny dialogue. The actors are very well cast and do a remarkably believable job. As Cliff and Duffy take to the road, Jill remains at home, at least initially. Chris Lockhart’s laid-back Duffy makes a great road-tripping partner to the more intense Cliff and keeps the action grounded. (Sure, they’re on a mission to find a person in possibly dire straits; but who doesn’t have time to flirt with the girl behind the counter at McDonald’s and get a shake?)
It’s remarkable that despite flashbacks and the use of stage space to suggest multiple settings (sometimes at the same time, as when two characters, both on stage, are speaking to one another on cell phones), the production is temporally and spatially as clear as a bell. With judicious placement of just a few stools and another piece of wood or two, we’re convinced we’re looking at a band performing in a bar, or two guys driving in a car, or a fast food counter in a strip mall. Amazing, really. The play is staged in the round, which works well for the most part. Once or twice I felt myself wishing I could see the action from a better angle, but these instances were rare.
“How can you be so sure?” is the question the rational, skeptical Cliff longs to ask Denise if and when he finds her. The playwright treats the often difficult subject of religion deftly; in fact, what has caused Denise to join the Fellowship, as it’s called, is much more the subject in question than are religious tenets themselves. How can any of us really be so sure of anything that we’re willing to throw ourselves wholeheartedly behind it, leaving behind that which was previously important to us? What’s the pay-off? We, too, are invited to look inward and to explore fundamental questions of human nature, individuality, and belonging.
Cliff and Duffy search out shrewd Sister Jean (Chandler Dalton), a Catholic nun on campus known for her experience dealing with young people swept away like Denise has been. Sister Jean argues that the Fellowship’s recruitment methods are very calculated. Using a “bait and switch” tactic, they seem to offer friendship to students new to college, out of their comfort zone and seeking to belong somewhere…and end up demanding that these young people renounce all that makes them them. They don’t allow them to see their families and even insist that members take on new names. What’s the difference between that and Sister Jean’s religious order? She joined with the full knowledge of what was involved, she says. And her feistiness makes clear that she has definitely retained a capacity for independent thought. Chandler Dalton brings out the somewhat enigmatic aspect of Sister Jean very effectively. The nun is stern and no-nonsense, but her cocked head and long stare suggest that the wheels are always turning, taking the measure of people and situations. When she sends Cliff to talk to former Fellowship member Simi (Helen Lister), it’s ostensibly to help him find his sister, though Sister Jean arranges the meeting in view of a very calculated effect on both Cliff and Simi. Ethan Corder seemed to really allow Cliff’s feelings about Denise to come through in this conversation with Simi in a more immediate way than they do when he narrates. It felt as though the audience got to know him better when he wasn’t talking directly to them.
Ciaran Brown plays student Fellowship leader Elijah with a chilling otherworldly creepiness. Brown manages to radiate a kind of hypnotic self-assurance that makes Elijah’s particular brand of charisma plausible. He seems mild-mannered enough, until we witness the sort of absolute power he wields over his group. In one wrenchingly powerful scene, Fellowship members surround Denise under Elijah’s direction and confront her about her “sin of attachment” to her music. Recognizing her passion, they enfolded her at the start by asking her to play music for their services; now they say her music engenders pride and therefore stands between her and Salvation. Publicly humiliated, she gives up her beloved guitar – and receives smiles and hugs all around. Whatever your religious beliefs, you can’t remain unmoved at a scene like this.
Cliff marshals his rational arguments: The Fellowship’s founder used to be a vacuum cleaner salesman! He sits in a big, fancy house while his followers peddle carnations to help the hungry! Surely such hypocrisy would disgust Denise. But it’s not to Denise’s reason that the group appealed, and, intelligent as she is, it’s not via rational argument that Cliff is going to get her to leave them. Ultimately, he can just speak to the truth he knows: that Denise’s absence leaves a gaping hole in the family and in him. That he’s sorry for the times he didn’t pay as much attention to her as he might have, that he loves her, and that he wants her back. How the conversation will go is for us to surmise.
Salvation Road is a moving and well-crafted play, impressively staged and acted as part of Louisville’s first Slant Culture Theatre Festival (of many, let’s hope!). The play stirs emotions and engenders thought that will occupy audiences long after the stage is bare. Fine experimental theatre indeed!
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