Last year, in one of the most exciting Off-Broadway debuts of the season, the Ensemble Studio Theatre staged Abby Rosebrock’s Dido of Idaho, a darkly comic manifesto on feminism in the face of infidelity, and morals in the face of family dysfunction. Rosebrock has now returned with another new work, a character-driven drama called Blue Ridge, presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.
As with Dido, a cheating man and the effect he has on the friendship between two women is at the center of the play’s emancipatory storyline, and both works share an affinity for Tennessee Williams references as well as a certain skepticism when it comes to southern U.S. Christianity. Even if Blue Ridge is lacking the razor-sharp wit and stunning surprises of Dido, Rosebrock nonetheless succeeds in creating six well-rounded characters with believable flaws and inescapable fates. There are few explosions to be found here, but the simmering tensions brought to bear by a strong ensemble of actors under the tight direction of Taibi Magar provide a satisfying status quo; they are a happy indication of the playwright’s continuing growth.
Set primarily in the living room of a Christian halfway house in North Carolina, Blue Ridge opens on Bible Study Wednesday. The home’s newest resident, Alison (Marin Ireland), is struggling to fit in. Fidgety and more familiar with the writings of Carrie Underwood than those of the Apostles, her manic way with words brings an uncomfortable energy to the group. It is also an outward sign of her anger issues. A high school English teacher who took an ax to her principal’s car after an emotional entanglement, Alison is in a constant state of flux between being humorously energetic and dangerous to herself and those around her.
As the story progresses from November to Christmas Day, Alison and her “intermittent explosive disorder” build and destroy relationships with her overseers as well as with her “inmate” colleagues. These include Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), a fellow teacher who is there voluntarily to work through her addiction issues; Wade (Kyle Beltran), a guitar-strumming voice of reason making his way through the 12-step program; Cole (Peter Mark Kendale), a deep-thinking Army vet whose previous residence was a psychiatric institute; Pastor Hern (Chris Stack), their religious leader with intimacy issues of his own; and Grace (Nicole Lewis), the optimistic and overstretched manager of the home.
With this boisterous performance, Ireland seals her position as Off-Broadway’s foremost portrayer of put-upon, lower-middle-class Caucasian women. From her slaughterhouse job in Kill Floor (2015, Lincoln Center Theatre) to her role as a Polish immigrant housekeeper in Ironbound (2016, Rattlestick Theater) to her excellent interpretation of a traumatized professor and single mother in On the Exhale (2017, Roundabout Underground), men have tried to break her characters in nearly every way imaginable. This time, damaged already from her relationship with her boss, Alison is triggered by Pastor Hern and his proclivities. The collateral damage includes the end of her friendship with Cherie, emotional tumult with Wade and physical aggression with Cole. Rosebrock’s neat trick here is that none of these characters is actually villainous. Each moves forward with only the best intentions, but they are ultimately undone by their mental, emotional and spiritual frailties. Kendale brings a riveting stoic minimalism mixed with an odd playfulness to Cole. Beltran’s outward calm betrays just enough of Wade’s internal struggles. And Lloyd’s Cherie, trusting and then betrayed, is rendered at just the right temperature. She also provides the ultimate dialect-infused observation in the work’s examination of sex and consent:
Not only does no always mean no, but.
Sometimes yes means juss means, I'm only doin this cause I fill like you'll leave me er cheat on me if I don't--
Cause iss not safe out there, y'all's hillbilly asses runnin around, I don't wanna be single again, / so--
I guess I consent to this act, but.
S'not cause yer special.
Scenic designer Adam Rigg’s spacious living area, set in front of a row of towering Carolina pine trees, seems too pristine and stain-free for a sanctuary that sees so much physical and emotional traffic, although, as Alison points out, “the Yelp review said best in Southern Appalachia.” The production’s final scene takes place in a high school, but Rigg offers no effort here beyond pushing the furniture to the side and throwing some plastic chairs into the middle of the room. Perhaps that’s what a New York playwright gets for adding a completely new locale in the last seven pages of the script, but the audience shouldn’t have to suffer the results.
Blue Ridge plays through Jan. 26 at the Atlantic Theater, 336 W. 20th St. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Sunday and Tuesday, and 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit atlantictheater.org/blue-ridge.