An excellent actor in every respect, Marin Ireland is a specialist at infusing characters with a blazing intensity that practically blisters the scenery.
Ireland is exceedingly well cast as a woman grappling with explosive rage issues in Blue Ridge, a new drama by Abby Rosebrock. Both the play and Atlantic Theater Company’s production benefit plenty from Ireland’s typically electrifying presence.
Rosebrock sets this modern-day story in the common room of a modest, faith-based halfway house located in rural North Carolina, where several nice people are recovering from various disorders. Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd) is a perpetual graduate student and an alcoholic. A cheerful blue collar guy, Wade (Kyle Beltran) has been addicted to painkillers. Though his problems are not specified, young, moody-broody Cole (Peter Mark Kendall) is newly released from a psychiatric institution.
They are counseled through their twelve-step program by Grace (Nicole Lewis), a kindly therapist, and Hern (Chris Stack), a low-keyed pastor.
The opening scene depicts Alison (Ireland) on her very first day as a resident. The 30-something Alison candidly identifies herself to the others as a “disgraced English teacher,” who lost her job, certification, and wherewithal when she took an axe to the car owned by a married man who was the principal at her high school and, not so incidentally, her lover.
Jittery, flirtatious, self-absorbed, yet needy, Alison is revealed as a smart woman who mistrusts men in general and especially men in positions of authority.
Inevitably, as the weeks go by, Alison becomes irritated by Hern, whose touchy-feely sort of sensitivity works her nerves. It’s apparent they are on a collision course. Yet what finally sets off Alison is a situation in which she takes it upon herself to defend somebody else.
A resulting meltdown and its eventual fallout during the second act damages several characters. It is not until the play’s concluding scene that Alison owns up to her meddling faults. The ending also intimates that Alison’s problems are rooted in some childhood trauma.
At best an intriguing portrait of a troubled woman, Blue Ridge is not otherwise a satisfying play, due to a sadly underwritten script as well as to its flat staging by Taibi Magar, the director of such notable off-Broadway productions as Is God Is and Underground Railroad Game.
Blue Ridge is a case of a good idea insufficiently dramatized: Composed in a realistic manner, the play never leaves the house’s common room until its final scene. The inert doings there prove to be far more about tell than show as the characters mostly sit around and talk;, their laconic dialogue rendered in a heavy backwoods dialect. Issues regarding racism and homophobia are raised and dropped. Incidents accidentally observed by others lead to dramatic crises.
Key figures, such as Hern’s girlfriend and the married man who once done Alison wrong, are often spoken of but never appear. Other than the role of Alison, which undoubtedly is amplified by Ireland’s fervid performance, the characters are only vaguely developed. Lewis, as the sympathetic counselor, and Kendall, as the emotionally damaged Cole, also are able to suggest some depths that are not provided by the text.
The play, which is intimate in nature, seems not especially suited to the wide, deep, and airy configuration of Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater. Magar and set designer Adam Rigg apparently try to mitigate the distance by squarely encasing the play within a low proscenium frame. To focus the action (such as it is) even further, the setting is capped with a ceiling. Curiously, the furniture and usually the actors are positioned relatively upstage. And while shabby furniture and an orange institutional-type carpet are correct for the situation, more than two hours of looking at it becomes wearing.
What’s intended to be a visual coup at the conclusion may look pretty but also might confuse literal-minded viewers. Those viewers who manage to stay awake, anyway.
Blue Ridge opened January 7, 2019, at the Linda Gross Theater and runs through January 26. Tickets and information: atlantictheater.org