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Atlas Performing Arts Center: Lab II

Remaining performances (tickets available here):

Thursday, July 16 at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 21 at 6:15 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at 2:15 p.m.

They say: Where do you draw the line between church and cult? Cliff’s mission: a commando raid to rescue his sister from a charismatic preacher with a shady past. Easy. Except for one thing: the girl doesn’t want to be saved.

John’s take: From the Manson family to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, cults have long been a subject of intense curiosity for many Americans. (Fun game that almost works: replace the word “unbreakable” with the title of this show in the Kimmy Schmidt theme song. Hopefully this will not ruin the show for you.) In Denise (a superb Kaylynn Creighton), Salvation Road offers us a thorough, well-drawn depiction of what a cult member might actually look like in 2015, and in so doing provides a satisfying and grounded dissection of youth, religiosity, family, and the psychology of cults.

The best part of both playwright D.W. Gregory’s script and director Marie Byrd Sproul’s production is the realism of Denise’s transformation from a streetwise high school musician to the docile follower of preacher Elijah (Grant Collins). This is no easy task, but Gregory and Sproul expertly unfurl a series of non-chronological scenes that ultimately convince us that, under the right circumstances, even the most cynical of us could be taken in. Creighton’s nuanced performance eschews the stereotypically robotic mannerisms of a cult member; even when under the thrall of Elijah, we detect in Denise’s eyes the embers, never fully extinguished, of the vibrant personality we saw her exhibit at the beginning of the play.

For the most part, the play follows Denise’s older brother, Cliff (Chris Daileader), as he embarks on a quest to rescue Denise from her “fellowship.” Accompanied by his younger sister Jill (Alexandra Yastishock) and friend Duffy (Johnny Weissgerber, riffing on Kramer from Seinfeld), Cliff’s disaffected young atheist seeks to trace his own fault in Denise’s abandonment of her family. While his soul-searching lacks the power of Denise’s metamorphosis, Daileader effectively communicates the confused desperation of a young man who fears that he may have lost a loved one forever for reasons that he can barely comprehend.

The play is expertly staged and paced; present-day scenes and flashbacks exist alongside each other comprehensibly, and the actors, doubling as the stage crew, do an efficient job of keeping things moving. While some of the jokes fall flat, the script generally manages the tonal shifts between the lighter and darker scenes with aplomb. And I admire the way that Gregory doesn’t attempt to answer all of the questions that her script poses, even though the ending of the play may leave some audience members wanting more.

Indeed, Salvation Road keeps us engaged for almost all 90 minutes of its runtime precisely because it poses questions that may well be unanswerable. The play forces us to consider our own thoughts on the bonds of family, the meaning of sacrifice, and the seeming irrationality of faith. Throughout the play, we empathize with both Denise and Cliff, even as they stand opposed to one another, and even as we chastise them for their missteps. The overall effect of Salvation Road is not unlike that of a cultish devotion: simultaneously satisfying and terrifying.

See it: You’ve read the Wikipedia entry on Jonestown.

Skip it: You’re too disturbed by that Wikipedia entry to leave the house.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Maxwell Photography.