Credit: Michael Brosilow

The best comics are deadpan. They don’t telegraph that they are going to be funny, they just are. In the same way, the best thrillers don’t let us in too early on the fact that we’re watching a thriller. Steven Dietz’s 2015 play about a mother trying to steal her daughter away from a cult begins with a rather flat, naturalistic conversation between a woman and a man who we slowly realize must be a cult deprogrammer. The audience is lulled into thinking we’re going to be watching a dramatic exploration of family dysfunction ending in some variation of a mother-and-child reunion. Instead, Dietz sucker punches us, then sucker punches us again and again until by the end of the evening we’re positively punch drunk—and utterly thrilled. To be more specific would spoil the ride.

Dietz does not deserve all the credit. Thanks to director Halena Kays and her team of theater professionals at American Blues Theater, both on- and backstage, the pace of this production is pretty close to perfect. Every turn in the plot comes at just the moment we think we—finally—know who is who and what is happening. And each performance is riveting without being overwrought. Gwendolyn Whiteside is compelling as the grieving mother, yearning to set her daughter free. And Philip Earl Johnson is terrific and terrifying as a strong-willed, utterly unscrupulous, perhaps-savior turned villain we will, by the end of the evening, love and hate with equal fury.   v