Alison only knows one way of being. All waving arms and defensive language, she’s a fast talker in all the meanings of that phrase. Having been incarcerated for taking a hatchet to her lover’s car, she’s been released into the loving care of a church-sponsored sober house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. We meet her at her very first group session where she recites Carrie Underwood lyrics instead of the bible passage she’s supposed to have prepared. Within minutes she’s telling the circle why she’s not really responsible for her crime and emphasizing that, having never done drugs, she doesn’t have need of any one of the twelve steps.
Anyone who has experience with someone in recovery will know exactly how this story is going to unfold. That’s the essential problem with Blue Ridge, now playing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. While Abby Rosebrock’s script is beautifully written with textured dialogue, it doesn’t have anything new to say about mental health, boundary issues, or the powers of addiction in its many forms. Only those who find a new path have a real prayer of moving on intact enough to survive in the outside world.
In the hands and body of stage steady Marin Ireland, Alison is particularly irksome. Her constant shrillness and twitching makes it hard to believe anyone in this substitute family would warm to her. This is especially true of her devoted roommate Cherie, played with deep sincerity by the excellent Kristolyn Lloyd. The male housemates’ reactions come from two diametrically opposed yet equally predictable directions. Peter Mark Kendall brings genuine vulnerability to the easily beguiled Cole while the endlessly watchable Kyle Beltran’s Wade creates friction in his struggle to find inner strength. The program’s co-founders are equally ill-equipped to lead everyone safely through a troubled journey. Pastor Hern (a smooth Chris Stack) weakly attempts to guide the housemates in a more mindful direction, and Nicole Lewis’s insufficiently defined Grace generally lives up to her name by simply finding the good in what comes naturally to each of her residents.
Director Taibi Magar successfully explores the shifting mood as the house moves from warm community to too close for comfort. Confrontations have a palpable and fiery emotional core. Her pacing is off, though, with the play running nearly 15 minutes over the prescribed two hours on Thursday night. Mikaal Sulaiman provides the intelligently curated soundtrack for both conflict and healing. Unfortunately, some of the other design choices are distracting. Why is the ten year old furniture of Adam Rigg’s set in a palate associated with the late 70s? Why does Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting incorporate an incongruous brilliant December sunshine streaming through the window and ugly fluorescent overheads that play a supporting role for just a few minutes? Why, while indicating the passage of time through Thanksgiving throws and a Rudolf mantlepiece, do we need to break the story’s flow and see each item put in place by the glow of a proscenium of LEDs?
Taken as a whole, this production of Blue Ridge is flawed and consequently frustrating. Writer Rosebrock has obvious talent, but her storytelling has not yet been brought into focus. However, if you are fascinated by the ways in which broken people can either fit together with or puncture those around them, you may find enough with which to engage. This limited run is scheduled through Sunday, January 27th. Regular tickets begin at $65 and can be purchased online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues).