'Blue Ridge': Theater Review

Ahron R. Foster
Marin Ireland (left) and Kristolyn Lloyd in 'Blue Ridge'
Ireland's emotionally intense turn is the chief reason to see this turgid drama.

Marin Ireland plays a high school teacher with anger management issues in Abby Rosebrock's world-premiere play about the residents of a church-sponsored halfway house in Appalachia.

I've been fortunate enough to have never spent time in a halfway house, so I can only hope the experience is more edifying than the way it's depicted in Abby Rosebrock's play, world-premiering at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company. Blue Ridge is set in one such institution located in the Appalachian region of North Carolina, where four troubled individuals have been sent to deal with their various issues.

Apparently, the way to do this is by engaging in aimless rapid-fire conversation, mainly composed of short, staccato phrases, that fails to provide much illumination about themselves or their situations. Not that many of the exchanges can be understood anyway, since the actors have been directed to speak as quickly as possible in impenetrable Southern accents, as if to minimize the banality of the dialogue. This reviewer had the advantage of being able to read the script afterwards and was still left wondering what the play was supposed to be about.

St. John's Service House, the religious-oriented facility manned by Pastor Hern (Chris Stack) and his assistant Grace (Nicole Lewis), seems to have but four residents. Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd) and Wade (Kyle Beltran) are there for addiction problems, while newcomer Cole (Peter Mark Kendall) suffers from intermittent explosive disorder, or IED. But the play's main focus is Alison (Marin Ireland), a high school English teacher who ragefully took an ax to the car owned by the married school principal with whom she had been having an affair. During a Bible study session, Alison explains her violent act by referencing Carrie Underwood songs.

Some of the dialogue, at least the parts that can be discerned, is pungently amusing. Alison boasts of St. John's that "the Yelp review said 'Best in Appalachia.'" When a discussion turns toward sex, she announces, "I quit givin' blowjobs, post-election. I was like, never again."  But more often it proves rambling and tedious. At one point, Cole asks the other group members if they've ever played a game called "Tree or Stalin" in which people are supposed to guess a word or phrase by asking, "Is it more like a tree, or more like Stalin?" Like virtually everything else brought up, this leads nowhere interesting.

The playwright attempts to infuse suspense into the rambling proceedings with a melodramatic plot twist involving a secret romantic relationship between two of the principals. The revelation makes for a fiery conclusion to the first act but ultimately proves as uninvolving as everything else. And the play's climactic scene, set several weeks after the main action, in which we learn of Alison's fate is so murky and inconclusive that you're left wondering about its supposed meaning.

Under the diffuse staging of Taibi Magar, the actors attempt to make the most of their poorly defined characters. Their herculean efforts mainly go for naught, although Beltran brings a swaggering charm to his guitar-strumming, ladies' man Wade and Ireland is, as usual, superb as the clearly damaged Alison. The actress delivers a riveting, emotionally intense turn that seems to expose her character from the inside out, as if you can see the raw nerve endings. But there's only so much even this talented, protean performer can do to alleviate the general torpor afflicting this lifeless drama.

Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Kyle Beltran, Marin Ireland, Peter Mark Kendall, Nicole Lewis, Chris Stack
Playwright: Abby Rosebrock
Director: Taibi Magar
Set designer: Adam Rigg
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Amith Chandrashaker
Music & sound designer: Mikaal Sulaiman
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company