The Locusts

(Left to right) Mariah Sydnei Gordon, Cyd Blakewell, Jennifer Glasse and Patrick Weber inThe Gift Theatre’s world premiere of "The Locusts".

The Gift Theatre's world premiere of Jennifer Rumberger's “The Locusts” at Theater Wit starts off like the kind of police procedural that's commonplace on television and ends up as an unsatisfactory head-scratcher with a message about facing our fears. 

Commissioned by The Gift, the play is set in the small Floridian coastal town of Vero Beach. A serial killer is preying on teenage girls, and FBI agent Ella (Cyd Blakewell), a profiling specialist, has been called in from Miami to help the small local force catch him. 

Though Ella is from Vero Beach, her presence isn't exactly welcomed by police chief Layla (Jennifer Glasse), who resents the idea that she needs outside help, doesn't like Ella's superior attitude and is determined to be the one calling the shots. The other officer we see is rookie Robbie (Patrick Weber), who is rising through the ranks rapidly and eager for action until he encounters one of the killer's gruesomely mutilated victims.

We soon learn that Ella brings a lot of baggage with her to her hometown, which she had been eager to leave as soon as she could. Much of it involves her sister Maisie (Brittany Burch) with whom she's staying. A struggling single mother pregnant with her second child, Maisie resents (there's lots of resentment in the play) Ella's success and the fact that she was the one who got out of town. She also has lots of issues about responsibility for the care of their now deceased father and the suicide of their mother.  

Living with Maisie are her 16-year-old daughter Olive (Mariah Sydnei Gordon), whose friends soon start disappearing, increasing her anxiety, and Nana Willa (Renee Lockett), whose dementia manifests itself in her warm relationship with Olive. A would-be writer who wants to leave town like Ella did and move to New York, Olive regales the old lady with stories about girls who turn the tables on their male tormentors. Then Nana tells Olive a doozie about the past, relishing every macabre detail.

Confronting a dark incident from her past is very much on Ella's mind and affecting her ability to do her job. Like the killer's victims, she was abducted and assaulted as a teenager. However, she doesn't remember much about what happened or how she got away, so we never find out. We can assume, though, that this may be why she prefers analyzing crimes from the safe distance of an office, as she tells Layla. It also may have something to do with why Maisie became a nurse who helps people hands-on.

Directed by ensemble member John Gawlik and erratically paced, “The Locusts” spends too much of its two-plus hours on how the women cope with the dramas and traumas of surviving in a toxic environment dominated by men and not enough on solving the crime at hand. We never see the killer and learn next to nothing about him, even though Ella is supposed to be profiling him. We don't find out why he picked Vero Beach, except perhaps for indications the town is dying, or how he chose his victims, except that they're all teenage girls.

Worse yet, the totally confusing climax involves a stakeout of the wrong car, a static-garbled phone call from Robbie to Ella and shots in the dark, so we don't know if the perp is caught or killed or neither. The ending is another one of Olive's stories, more enigmatic than ever, though I think it's supposed to be hopeful.

Unfortunately, the staging doesn't do the script or the actors any favors. The long, narrow stage has several playing areas — including Maisie's unkempt living room in the center and the police station at one end — but the seating on  both legs of the “L” makes it impossible for everyone to see everything. Some details of Chas Mathieu's set, such as a large tree-like construct of cloth strips looming over the couch, are incomprehensible, and Trey Brazeal's lighting is spooky but little more. Add the fact that not all the actors project equally, and “The Locusts” could use some work both on conception and execution.

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