Very exciting news—Broadway in Chicago, which generally promotes touring shows, is partnering with Timeline Theater for the Chicago premier of Oslo. The 2017 recipient of just about every Best Play honor (including the Tony) is a masterpiece. Relaying the improbable, year-long events that led to the Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty of 1993, the script by Nick Bowling recounts how a Norwegian diplomat and her husband managed to get Israeli and Palestinian Liberation Organization officials into the same room based on the shared mission of stopping bloodshed.
I bring up Oslo in a comparative analysis of The Woman in Black and On Clover Road because the audience experience for all three works involves physical reactions to the suspense created in a theater. In the case of Oslo, seemingly small events—like waiting to see if a phone will or will not ring—result in innocent lives saved or lost. I remember multiple instances when I realized I had literally stopped breathing.
Since I am particularly drawn to highly suspenseful plays, I am always searching for “thrillers”; sadly, that genre of theater is not produced often. I am distinguishing thrillers from mystery shows like Deathtrap. A classic who-done-it builds tension by unveiling clues and encouraging the audience to play along as detective. A “thriller,” on the other hand, builds tension from our empathy for characters whose well-being is constantly threatened—sometimes all the way to the curtain call. (To note one classic example, I would consider Wait Until Dark a thriller.)
My all-time favorite thriller is The Woman in Black, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary with an American tour of the British production (from Pemberley Productions, playing at Chicago’s Royal George). The play involves the morose Arthur Kipps (Bradley Armacost), who is trying to explain to family and friends how his life diverged into tragedy. He hires an actor (Adam Wesley Brown) to help him make the storytelling more palatable for an audience, and the result is a terrifying show-within-the-show in which the two act out the story of a younger, more ebullient Arthur Kipps as he travels to a distant marsh and discovers the Woman in Black, a ghost who invokes vengeance on the world by taking children to replace her own lost son.
Much of the horror of The Woman in Black is accomplished by creative staging and sound effects, and the show could begin with the following disclaimer: Your heartbeat will increase in syncopation to the rhythm of a very spooky rocking chair. However, varying levels of skepticism contribute more to the thrills invoked than visual effects or startling sounds. The young Arthur Kipps does not believe in ghosts, the actor does not believe in ghosts, and the audience does not believe in ghosts. As a result, the terror of one increases the terror of all three as the evidence of a ghost builds to the devastating reveal that ends the play.
While The Woman in Black is a Victorian horror story, On Clover Road by Steven Dietz occurs in present day and incorporates the best elements of classic noir. The set is the confined quarters of a dark, abandoned motel room. Through the door, emerge a hard-boiled “deprogrammer” and his imperfect client. Kate (Gwendolyn Whiteside) has hired Stine (Philip Earl Johnson) to abduct her daughter, who ran away three years ago at age 13 and is now living in the midst of a brainwashing cult led by the charismatic Harris McClain (Jon Hudson Odom).
Much of the tension in On Clover Road rests in how every interaction between the four characters involves distrust. Kate has no assurances that Stine can reprogram his daughter as he claims. Stine is unsure if Kate has the gumption to see the process through to its unpredictable and possibly violent end. And can either character be certain that the girl Stine abducts (Grace Smith) is truly Kate’s daughter considering the three years that have passed and the level of trauma involved? While The Woman in Black builds from characters already inflicted with debilitating grief, On Clover Road involves four characters each using their different talents to achieve what they want in a potentially deadly situation.
Theater is the perfect medium for great thrillers—even better than film, which has the advantage of close ups and camera pans. Yet, no movie theater can replace the relationship between the actors and the audience as they experience the chills together. Perhaps the most important similarity between The Woman in Black and On Clover Road is the plethora of reactions from the audiences and the way those interactions energize the actors on stage.
*NOTE: On American Blue Theater’s website, artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside offers her own interpretation of what defines a thriller—it’s well worth reading.