Ireland’s Alison has been assigned to a term of several months at St. John’s Service House, a religious affiliated halfway house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, for anger management issues rather than take the alternative which was house arrest. (Alison, a former English teacher, has taken a hatchet to the car of her longtime lover, who just happens to be her mentor and boss at Blue Ridge High School.) The play begins on Alison’s first Wednesday group Bible session with the other residents (not to be called inmates): Cherie, a former French teacher who has an alcohol problem; Wade addicted to painkillers after falling off a roof while doing construction; and later Cole, a veteran suffering from PTSD. St. John’s has been founded by the team of Grace, a black lesbian social worker, and Hern, a soft-spoken white pastor who has relationship issues.
From the moment that Alison has the floor she dominates the room. She is the sort of person who always has to be the center of attention. When asked to give a Bible passage she instead quotes country-western singer Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” which may have suggested to her the axing of the boyfriend’s car. Another time she slips into Tennessee Williams’ Blanche du Bois while rolling around on the floor. She is also certain that she doesn’t belong here and attempts to meddle in the lives of several of the residents who she thinks need her help. This includes both Cherie’s internet affair with an anonymous man who is already in a relationship and Cole’s love life. Unfortunately, meddling in people’s lives, particularly when you are not solving your own problems, will lead to disaster and the play which begins on a comic level quickly turns dramatic.
One of the problems with the play is that not all of the characters get equal time so that there are a certain amount of loose ends. Also some of the plot devices, while dramatic, may not be entirely believable. However, Magar directs so that the play is at all times engrossing and engaging. We become totally involved with these people to the extent that we are allowed to know them, their problems and their backgrounds. Of course, they have arrived at various times and are at various stages of their recovery so that not everything gets spoken about.
Ireland gives a big performance that is almost larger than life. From the moment we meet her, she commands the stage. Watch how intently she listens to the others or how you can hear her thoughts clicking away as to how to avoid the rules she doesn’t like. It is almost exhausting following her as she is always doing something with her hands, her body, her voice, her total instrument. This is the sort of complete theatrical commitment that makes legends and would be dangerous for an unstable performer. Try taking your eyes off her while she is on stage – you simply can’t do it. However, unlike her Alma Winemuller in last season’s Summer and Smoke where she made all of the other characters disappear, her Alison is held in check by the other actors who have their own axes to grind, pun intended.
Kristolyn Lloyd’s Cherie is a woman who is in touch with herself and has almost worked her way back. She has learned what she wants and is making long-term plans to get it. Wade as portrayed by Kyle Beltran has a way to go in his 12-step program, often taking perceived slights to heart when none may have been intended. Peter Mark Kendall as the vet suffering from trauma is all wound up when we first meet him, never finishing a sentence, a time bomb waiting to go off. Nicole Lewis’ Grace is a sympathetic character, always looking out for the welfare of her charges with the minimum of drama and with a touch that soothes. Chris Stack’s Hern, on the other hand, remains a man of mystery even when we learn several not so flattering things about him.
Adam Rigg’s living room setting is a comfortable room, obviously the meeting place of the residents for their get-togethers. Although there are simple signs of Thanksgiving and Christmas that appear, the room doesn’t change much in the course of the play’s four months. However, the last scene takes place elsewhere in a breathtaking location that is both realistic and poetic. The costumes by Sarah Laux have the comfortable look of items lived in daily. Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design includes well-chosen pop songs that comment ironically on the problems of the characters. Kudos to Stephen Gabis for the authentic sounding North Carolina dialects which define both the milieu and the characters. The lighting by Amith Chandrashaker has the brightness of shared institutional space whether by day or night. In the one climactic scene where everything comes to a head, UnkleDave’s Fight House’s work with the actors comes to the fore.
In a time when many people have trouble dealing with their feelings, Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge is a fascinating account of people attempting recovery from various emotional and physical problems. Some of the play must be taken on faith while other parts remain unclear. However, Taibi Magar’s production for Atlantic Theater Company will not let you lose your concentration for a moment. Much of this is due to Marin Ireland’s titanic performance in the leading role, one you will not easily forget.
Blue Ridge (through January 27, 2019)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission