Reviewed by David Walters
Abby Rosebrock’s highly touted play Blue Ridge, a dramatic dark comedy directed by Taibi Magar at Atlantic Theater Company, in the hands of a lesser cast would have been tedious at best. The ensemble’s excellent characterizations in this production lift the piece to palatable.
A self-loathing, over compensating, new resident, Alison (Marin Ireland), arrives at St. John’s Service House in North Carolina (a residence home set up as a religious based half-way house), sentenced there for six months to address her anger management issues as she had taken an ax to her boss/lover’s car (i.e. “Louisville slugger to both headlights”). She awkwardly adjusts to the new living arrangement, ingratiates herself to the staff and her housemates and becomes embroiled in the heartaches of each of the other residents as they all, some more than others, work their way through the 12 step program without fully focusing on why she was placed there and concentrates instead on getting her sentence reduced so she can (supposedly) go back to teaching. She is plagued by her own demons of the injustices of the world and her destructive relationships with men (“Wade, you try bein bamboozled by the opposite sex fer two decades…”) as she quotes Blanche from Streetcar Named Desire and Carrie Underwood songs. Her life experience has shown her that women are forced into the role of “mice,” subjugating themselves to the lives of men, and having seen no other examples of relationships in her life, assumes that they all are.
These views guide her feelings and behavior towards her roommate, Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), who has self-checked into the facility to confront alcoholism and is working on creating a new life for herself.
SPOILER ALERT (don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want to know):
Alison finds out that Cherie is having an emotional affair with the head pastor of the program, Herd (Chris Stack). Alison sees this relationship between the two of them as leading to a dead-end, getting screwed over, outcome (mirroring her own relationship history). She blackmails the pastor as she needs a letter from him to get early release from the program and get her job back. Herd is already in a relationship and prohibited from initiating relationships with the residents. This would obviously reflect bad on him as a leader (I mean he’s not the president after all), for the board of directors and may jeopardize the home and the service it provides. So, Alison gets her letter, but this self-motivated action back fires on her majorly when Hern begins distancing himself from Cherie. Cherie, in her bewilderment and heartache at seeing him pull away, realizes that Alison has betrayed her and cuts her off physically and emotionally devastating Alison and sending her spiraling into self-destruction and loathing.
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The two other residents are: Cole (Peter Mark Kendall), a sincere and emotionally wounded vet released from a mental institution to try and work his way back into society and Wade (Kyle Beltran, who has a lovely singing voice) who works the hardest of all to lift himself out of his opioid addiction in trying to change his life for the better.
Nicole Lewis (aptly named Grace) is the mothering, well-grounded, non-judgmental other staff member of St. John’s who sees what she is doing as her life’s work and is thoroughly committed to each resident and bettering their life coping mechanisms.
The play is a power struggle, from both within and without. Without, in that each character must find his place in the group, where they fit in and how to successfully function in this communal environment; and within, in that they are all fighting within themselves to find a way out of the self-destruction that their lives have become.
What I appreciated about Ms. Rosebrock’s work is that everything is not explained. After the obligatory exposition, there are historical facts and character traits in each person that exist without any explanation of what they mean or why they’re there. She’s not afraid to let her characters exist without apologizing for them.
Scenic Design by Adam Rigg; Costume Design by Sarah Laux; Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker; Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman.
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Now through January 26, 2019
Running time: Approximately 2 hours including intermission.