Story: In the innocuous-looking hamlet of Lonesome Hollow, residents are free to wander throughout the town, conversing with one another as they go. They are not, however, permitted to leave the village, because they are sex offenders in the “soonish” future, permanently segregated from the rest of society.

There’s a fence surrounding the perimeter to remind them of their imprisonment, as well as the omnipresent sound of gunshots fired in the woods beyond the fence, where the authorities of Lonesome Hollow say that the locals just beyond the town extract their own justice with escapees.

Tuck, a photographer who is being held prisoner in Lonesome Hollow, regrets his decision to sleep with a 16-year-old girl who was one of his models. He’s been an ideal prisoner since his incarceration for “pornography,” i.e, taking pictures of subjects in the nude. In fact, he’s built an elaborate labyrinth so that he and others who are interested can make their own mental pilgrimage to Jerusalem as part of their penitence and faith.

He’s mocked for this by Nye, an unrepentant child molester. Nye is sarcastic and cynical, motivated only by his desire for “special cigarettes” sometimes given to him by a guard named Mills for good behavior.

As Tuck anticipates his eventual freedom, he’s given cryptic warnings by Mills that his stay may continue indefinitely. Sessions with Glover, the facility’s unflinching superintendent, are ominous and unsettling, and turn even more sinister after a visit by Tuck’s concerned sister, Pearl. While Tuck notes that his labyrinth differs from a maze in that it has one path leading to salvation, Lonesome Hollow very much resembles the latter with sundry paths that can lead only to frustration and despair.

Highlights: Lee Blessing, who has penned numerous notable plays including A Walk in the Woods, Eleemosynary and Cobb, is the author of this chilling, 2006 effort that is receiving its St. Louis premiere as the opening presentation of West End Players Guild’s 2013-14 season. As with Blessing’s one-act drama, which is played out over seven scenes, the company’s production under Robert Ashton’s direction is good but not great.

It’s certainly timely, following on the heels of recent front-page stories in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a real-life place in Farmington, Mo., where sex offenders are kept behind double-row fences topped with razor wire, confined not for crimes committed but for offenses they might commit in society at large.

Other Info: In his program notes, Ashton notes that Lonesome Hollow “challenges us to think about power and the trade-offs between security and individual rights.”

To a large extent, he and his capable cast convey Blessing’s description and depiction of a future that is disturbing. What’s problematic is that Blessing’s script, so rich in potential, devolves from its opening subtlety into a point of view that is sledge-hammered on the audience. The best works of this ilk, such as George Orwell’s classic 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s lyrical Fahrenheit 451, artfully conjure the creeping hold of a totalitarian state in the insidious manner of kudzu that innocuously overwhelms a landscape.

Technically, the production puts us squarely in an uncomfortable place. Ken Clark’s scenic design sets all the action on the floor in front of the Union Avenue stage, with Nathan Schroeder’s lighting consistently harsh and appropriately unrelenting. Clark’s depiction of Tuck’s labyrinth serves suitably as the show’s anchor, with leaves strewn about to indicate the stark embrace of encroaching winter in this hellish place.

Josh Cook’s sound design includes ominous strains of distant gunshots as well as periodic indications of more peaceful, external sounds. Beth Ashby’s costumes are suitable for the characters, although Mills’ power suit seems a bit much for a guard. Rebeca Davidson adds some suitably placed props, including a menacing taser gun, while Brian Peters contributes convincing fight choreography.

Jeff Kargus gives a powerful performance as the penitent Tuck, who is cruelly told that “he has hope,” although we know better. He paints a complex portrait of an artist who finds himself incarcerated for freely expressing his creativity in a society that has become increasingly intolerant. He’s confused, angry and also desperately seeking solutions through the meditational power of his labyrinth.

As Nye, B. Weller again demonstrates his perceptive ability to inhabit a role with consummate skill. Nye fully realizes his disease and who he is, and yet Weller displays humanity and an aching loneliness in Nye that separates him at times from his crimes. Seeing Weller crawl across the set after another series of degrading punishments is achingly affecting.

Mark Abels paints the commandant Glover with a banal nastiness that works much more effectively than the almost cartoonish villainy to which Blessing leads Glover toward the work’s denouement. Relying on that subtlety rather than descending into caricature would make Glover a more sinister and chilling character, both in the script and in Abels’ realization.

Elizabeth Graveman is effective as the intrusive guard Mills, who randomly parcels out rewards and punishments to Nye and offers Tuck some extra benefits that lead to more misery for all. As Pearl, Rachel Hanks shows how the inhumane constraints of Lonesome Hollow permeate not only the village but stretch insidiously into the world beyond, although Hanks could play the histrionics down a bit to better effect.

Lonesome Hollow will give you much to ponder, but not nearly as much if Blessing had resisted the urge to mangle his message with its unfortunate dramatic escalation, something that director Ashton and his cast do not escape.

Play: Lonesome Hollow

Company: West End Players Guild

Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Avenue

Dates: October 3, 4, 5, 6

Tickets: $20; contact www.WestEndPlayers.org/tickets or 367-0025

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb