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Blue Ridge

Theatre Review by David Hurst - January 7, 2019

Peter Mark Kendall, Chris Stack, Kyle Beltran, Kristolyn Lloyd,
Nicole Lewis, and Marin Ireland
Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Despite a script that throws credulity out the window, the Atlantic Theater Company has given Abby Rosebrock's Blue Ridge the kind of world premiere a young playwright can only dream about. Economically directed with the steady hand of Taibi Magar (Lauren Yee's The Great Leap, also at the Atlantic) and performed by a superb cast led by the incandescent Marin Ireland, Blue Ridge centers on a group of dysfunctional misfits at a church-sponsored halfway house. Ireland's character, an AP English teacher at Blue Ridge high school whose affair with her married principal led to her taking an axe to his car, is new to the group but she wastes no time in making herself the center of attention and wrecking havoc in her new family.

Set in present-day Southern Appalachia (Western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge mountains), St. John's Service House is overseen by Grace (Nicole Lewis), a social worker, and Pastor Hern (Chris Stack), whose oft-mentioned girlfriend, Dahra, remains unseen. Both Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), an AP French teacher, and Wade (Kyle Beltran) have been at the house for awhile, Wade for opioid possession and Cherie as a voluntary admit who's in recovery, when Alison (Marin Ireland) arrives at the top of the play. In addition to regular urine screenings, the Service House requires its occupants to hold a job and to do volunteer service work, and we quickly learn Alison will be selling above-ground swimming pools with Wade. As the months pass, Cherie reveals to Alison she's having an internet-romance with a man from Tennessee, and Alison breaks the news that she's going to be allowed to resume her teaching position in early January, three months ahead of her scheduled end-time at the house. But a new arrival, Cole (Peter Mark Kendall) who's also in recovery, sets off an imbalance in the group as sparks fly between him and Alison. Finally, Alison discovers the identity of Cherie's internet-romance and decides to take matters into her own hands with predictably disastrous results.

It's easy to recommend Blue Ridge because the performances, particularly Ireland's, are so strong. And it's easy to imagine more forgiving audiences overlooking the lapses in common sense Rosebrock either neglects to recognize or chooses to ignore in her writing. (Warning — spoiler alerts ahead.) Subplots involving Wade's contention Hern is racist, and Cole's emotional meltdown when he and Alison finally consummate their attraction to each other, go largely unexamined. And even if you can excuse the complete lack of any credible psychoanalytical treatment for these deeply disturbed people, it's ludicrous to imagine Alison's school would ever allow her to return to her teaching position after first conducting an affair with the principal, and then taking an axe to his Honda in a vengeful rage when he wouldn't leave his wife. It would never happen! Then, in order for Rosebrock to spin her plot forward, she contrives an improbable conversation between Cherie and her on-line suitor that Alison conveniently happens to see and hear. But this contrivance gives Alison the ammunition she needs for the Me-Too upbraiding she gives Cherie's suitor that brings the first act to its fire and brimstone conclusion. It's certainly theatrical, and it's in keeping with Rosebrock's previous works such as Dido of Idaho that was produced last spring at the Ensemble Studio Theater. (Both plays turn on a woman's compulsive allegiance to an unavailable man.) But in Blue Ridge the theatricality is unearned. Indeed, on reflection it feels like Rosebrock's entire play was constructed around Alison's take-down of a man she deems unworthy of her friend's affection. That's undoubtedly true, but it's none of Alison's business and everyone pays a huge price for her meddling in the end. Perhaps if she'd had the help of a competent therapist instead of a sketchy halfway house, Alison's future would be a little brighter.

Blue Ridge
Through January 27
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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