An expert piece of craftsmanship, Salvation Road is the kind of drama that is guaranteed to be enjoyed by any who go see it, but nevertheless challenging to recommend. It’s got some strong, touching moments, some snappy humor, and a well-informed look at the world of religious cults, but little in the way of fireworks – solid, believable theatre, perhaps a tad straightforward for the more thrill-seeking of Fringegoers.
A classic hero’s journey, D.W. Gregory’s script follows enthusiastically skeptical teenager Cliff (Chris Daileader) on a quest to rescue his older sister Denise (Kaylynn Creighton) from the black hole of a cult she joined upon arriving at college. Along for the ride are his spunky younger sister Jill (Alexandria Yastishock), always pushing Cliff to make pragmatic decisions, and his best friend Duffy (Johnny Weissgerber), an odd 90’s-California leftover who says ‘like’ a lot and comes off as the wise fool to Cliff’s high-strung leader.
The story is primarily concerned with the rift between Cliff and Denise – or rather, between Cliff and himself, a rift that prevented him from openly reaching out to his sister while she was at home, before the cult deemed Denise’s family ‘toxic’ to her. It’s a kind of tale we’ve seen before, and while such a breaking-down-the-emotional-barriers journey is always moving when presented as clearly as it is here, the story’s true strengths are in the scenes where Cliff and company circle around the edges of the cult.
by D.W. Gregory
Directed by Marie Byrd Sproul
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Director Marie Byrd Sproul stages these key scenes with a steadiness in contrast to the ample energy of the rest of the show, aided by careful placement of a few well-made stage props (designed by James Raymond). These encounters, with nun Sister Jean (Kitty Felde, utterly convincing) and former cultist Simi (Shaina Higgins, masterfully restrained) provide the show with morally grayer and more complex dimensions that are riveting and provocative. It’s somewhat of a shame that the flashback scenes directly depicting Denise’s encounter with the cult are not as probing or surprising, despite the excellent performances of all involved.
Other than in those highlight scenes, the play tends to sacrifice contemporary versimilitiude in favor of emotional directness. (A younger audience may find the teenage characters a tad unrecognizable, although the mechanics of cell-phone usage are handled with aplomb.) In the most simple, familiar, and meaningful of relationships – between Cliff and his sisters, Cliff and his best friend, and Cliff and his hopes and regrets – the fully committed cast finds a great deal of truth, and at least a little something for everyone.