Can a play feature superb acting, well-judged dialogue, exceptional production values, and a compelling point of view and still fail to catch fire? I found myself asking that question often during Blue Ridge, a slow-burning slice of life dramedy receiving its world premiere from Atlantic Theater Company. Playwright Abby Rosebrock, a South Carolina native, has a keen ear for the patois of Southern Appalachia, where the drama is set. Having lived in that region for several years myself, I can attest to her affinity for the natural rhythm of its speech.
More generally, Rosebrock treats her characters with dignity and dimensionality. She sets Blue Ridge – the title refers to the beautiful, mysterious mountains that span an expanse from Pennsylvania to Georgia – in a residential halfway house in Western North Carolina, rendered with the right amount of institutional banality by Adam Rigg’s knotty-pine set and Amith Chandrashaker’s caustic lighting. The story’s six figures – four inpatients and two counselors – regard the place as a cross between a haven and a holding cell, aware of their need for a safe space but chafing against its barriers.
Within this frame, Rosebrock has the opportunity to address a number of topical issues facing the region, the nation, and the world at large. The residents – fiery Alison (Marin Ireland), intellectual Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), soft-spoken Wade (Kyle Beltran), and country boy Cole (Peter Mark Kendall) – represent a variety of mental, physical, and spiritual ailments, including alcoholism, opioid addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and unchecked rage. Seen across several stages of recovery, they exemplify the reality that comes with recognizing a fatal flaw in your psychology and resolving, either willingly or reluctantly, to correct it.
That mindset extends to Pastor Hern (Chris Stack) and social worker Grace (Nicole Lewis), who preside over the charges. They are authority figures, but both can clearly be recognized as imperfect, complicated people who could use as much help as they’re ready to give.
I spent the first scene of Blue Ridge drawn into the casual, musical world the play strives to create. Over an evening of bible study, the characters establish an easy rapport, with overlapping dialogue, unforced warmth, and a genuine ability to communicate their personalities and backstories without a load of unnecessary exposition. Alison eschews the good book in favor of Carrie Underwood, offering a persuasive analysis of “Jesus Takes the Wheel” that speaks to her experience as a skeptic, a cynic, and a renowned English teacher. Wade and Cherie gently reveal their own talents – for music and French, respectively. Hern and Grace pray and provide fellowship without coming across as holy rollers.
The play’s remaining two hours never match the tenderness of that first scene. Rosebrock’s structure vacillates between literary tone poem and plot-driven drama, resulting in clashing mood shifts. Some isolated moments land beautifully, as when Cole, a self-medicated veteran, recites a scripture verse that emphasizes the personal responsibility to save yourself. Kendall shows the raw nerve beneath Cole’s tough, laconic façade, his physical characteristics and shaking voice betraying a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin.
Other moments – as when Cherie sings a spiritual in French – feel superfluous or arch. Other matters are not explored as thoroughly as they could be. Alison identifies with Blanche DuBois, dramatic literature’s most famous disgraced educator, and quotes passages from A Streetcar Named Desire at length. Parallels clearly exist – both women create elaborate mental fantasies to escape the truth’s harsh light – but whereas Blanche valued gentility and keeping up appearances above all else, Alison’s outward crassness and sometimes uncontrollable anger are her defining characteristics.
In discussing Streetcar, Hern cuttingly remarks that Blanche “never rilly [sic] makes it past the wallowing stage”. The same may be true of Alison, although Ireland works hard to project her strength even at her most wounded. But Rosebrock doesn’t sufficiently explore what it means to leave Alison in stasis, unable to learn or change. You rarely see her struggling to overcome the problems that imploded her life and landed her in residential care. She stays on an even keel, until she’s suddenly not anymore. Her testy interactions with Hern, played by Stack with a barely hidden chauvinist undercurrent, quickly take on a soap opera vibe.
Some social issues – race relations, conservatism, sexual politics – are introduced without enough specificity. It’s established early on that Grace is a lesbian, but throughout the play, her sexuality is used as a convenient plot point. I want more LGBTQ characters whose sexual preference isn’t their defining trait. This sometimes seems to be Rosebrock’s aim. But it feels disingenuous to remind the audience that Grace is gay only to establish whether someone might be homophobic or whether an affair might be happening. It doesn’t help that Grace seems less fully dimensional than the other characters, despite Lewis’s persuasive, frequently funny performance.
Director Taibi Magar has trouble setting a consistent tone. Her production features long scene changes performed by headset-clad stage managers in full view of the audience, which clashes with Rosebrock’s essentially realist aesthetic. The pacing in the shorter second act frequently turns molasses-slow, only to speed up at moments of increasingly predictable revelation. The play’s final scene, which wants to be speculative and elliptical, hasn’t struck that balance yet.
Much of Blue Ridge comes close to striking the right balance but ultimately falling short. As Alison prepares for the next chapter in her life, she implores Wade to “spend some time out on that mountain for me. Wish I’d done more’uh that.” The line aptly captures what the play doesn’t fully achieve: Rosebrock could spend some more time figuring out exactly what story she wants to tell.