“The Locusts” is a good idea with strong acting ruined by inconsistent writing and a poor set design

Jennifer Rumberger’s The Locusts, now playing at Theater Wit in a production by The Gift Theatre, is grounded by excellent acting, especially from lead Cyd Blakewell, but ultimately cannot overcome two serious issues: confusing writing and a poorly conceived set design.

The play takes place in Vero Beach, FL, where a serial killer is stalking young female residents, chopping their bodies into small pieces. By the time three kids have been killed, the FBI gets involved, sending former local Ella (Blakewell), who is a special agent but one whose focus is profiling and thus is unused to the streets. In Vero Beach, which she abandoned as a teen in order to leave behind the memory of a terrible occurrence when she herself was a teenager—why does anyone with teens still live there?—Ella is forced to face her demons if she wants to help catch the killer.

This play is not so much a whodunnit as a “when will they catch him?” From the very start, the local police (Jennifer Glasse and Patrick Weber) already know what kind of car he drives, and how many Cadillacs can there be in Vero Beach, a town of under 17,000 people that covers barely thirteen square miles? By process of elimination alone, they should be able to locate the killer in less than a day. There is plenty of evidence within the play that the local constabulary are capable officers, but the situation Rumberger hands them just makes them seem inept. And what kind of serial killer hunts victims only in one relatively small town? Does he simply want to be caught?

We never do learn anything about the psychology of this oddly helpful yet utterly vicious killer. Rumberger focuses instead on Ella and her family, with whom she is staying while back in town. Brittany Burch plays Maisie, the sister Ella left behind; Mariah Sydnei Gordon is Maisie’s teenage daughter Olive; and Renee Lockett is Willa, Olive’s ailing grandmother. She seems to have some form of dementia, and Olive—who aspires to be a horror writer a la Stephen King—entertains her by telling her the stories she has written in her notebook. Willa loves these stories, listening with a child’s enthusiasm and mannerisms, and that seems appropriate because, for the most part, these stories feel as if they have been written by a middle schooler, not a high school student who is looking to make a career out of them. (Seriously, who starts horror stories with “Once upon a time”? Does the playwright have any familiarity at all with strong high school writing?)

To Rumberger’s credit, she does not allow the play to get bogged down in cliché “FBI vs. locals” territorial squabbling. Glasse’s character acknowledges that she doesn’t really want Ella there, but is willing to work with her side by side. The more significant local cop focus is on Weber’s Robbie, a 20-something who has already made lieutenant and sees himself heading for captain until this case teaches him how much he doesn’t know. For her part, Ella has no real issue with either of them, reacting to them with a kind of benign “whatever” attitude.

That is not always the case between her and Maisie, who was devastated when the big sister she admired took off when she was still in school, returning only to help deal with her father’s illness. But Maisie only sees the fact that Ella left again, allowing their father to die on Maisie’s watch (a thing that still haunts her), and though she is of course aware of Ella’s teen trauma, she blames her sister for having left her alone. It’s an interesting dynamic, but it is probably in the wrong play. I’d have loved to see one that dealt primarily with these sisters instead of the very contrived and weirdly inconsistent serial killer main plotline. But Rumberger, who also leaves us with a confusing and ambiguous ending that doesn’t satisfactorily bring either the serial killer story or Ella’s battle with her past to a conclusion, is more focused on the skin-crawly story than the potentially touchy-feely one.

There is, of course, nothing that director John Gawlik could have done about the writing issues, and he does get strong performances from his cast. But it would have helped tremendously if he had more input into Chas Mathieu’s scenic design. The L-shaped seating arrangement here made the design difficult from the get-go, but Mathieu didn’t do himself (or the audience) any favors even within that layout. The main part of the audience is on the long part of the “L,” and though that gives them a great view of Maisie’s living room, both the raised “orange grove” platform and the police department war room are off to the right (the war room most egregiously, as we actually have to strain our necks and see through people to know what is happening there). And the worst part of it? It was totally unnecessary.

That orange grove section, which is the biggest part of the set, is used very infrequently…and the huge 50s-style billboard that is part of it is utterly ridiculous, and as far as I can tell also completely invented: I could almost see it if it were a replica of some well-known sign in Vero Beach, but I can find nothing online that indicates that it is. Besides, that is not even the strangest thing about this set; that would be that there is so much empty wall on the other side of the living room that it is clear that the police set could have been moved upstage easily, which would have eliminated the awkwardness of having it off in a corner, blocked by the audience seating.

As long as I’m letting out my frustrations, I may as well comment on the final scene. (Don’t worry: I will not give any spoilers.) It begins on a stakeout in a driving rainstorm during which the police walkie-talkies become garbled to the point where we cannot understand what is being said. Ella manages to glean a message that she needs to go somewhere else. We are told that it is “five minutes away,” but when she arrives, there is absolutely no sign of that rain. Now I know that, in Florida, rain can turn on and off like a faucet, but still… And we never do get to learn what specific message led her there.

Oh, yes, about the title: The Locusts is a nifty metaphor about how the ugliness of man’s actions is a kind of plague that can overrun and destroy everything, leaving only devastation in its wake. Would that everything else here had had that careful and thoughtful consideration.

The amazing thing, to me, about this production is that the acting is so good that it nearly salvages everything. (Even the weird things like not setting up a war room bulletin board until half a dozen girls have been slaughtered.) Clearly, for me anyway, it doesn’t, but it might for others. There is a great play out there somewhere dealing with the hunt for a serial killer. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

The Locusts is presented by The Gift Theatre and runs through Nov 19 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Street, Chicago. For tickets and information, please visit The Gift Theatre or, call 773-975-8150. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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