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A CurtainUp Review
Blue Ridge

I did NOT achieve, a nine-year streak'uh the highest AP English test scores in North Carolina, in a program I started myself, to be juss, carted off, like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire— Uh-uh, no--no Sir, Alison Thomas, does not shrink quietly, into the margins—I have vision, I have work to do an' I will NOT ...I will NOT be defeated by this. — Alison
Marin Ireland (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
Abby Rosebrock's play now in its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater's spacious Linda Gross venue gives New York theater goers an inside look at the world of a group of social misfits brought together in a church-run halfway house in the mountains of Southern Appalachia. Intriguing locale. Intriguing potential for complex characters through whose interactions to explore social issues— recovery from alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual dysfunction, excessive rage. . .as well as inappropriate behavior by those assigned to help them heal.

The misfits we meet during the course of the play's two hours certainly have a lot of healing to do. And the production is blessed to with a terrific group of actors to portray them, headed by the always riveting Marin Ireland.

Bringing diversely damaged characters together as a family unit based not on blood ties but those of social rehabilitation certainly has plenty of ingredients for a powerful drama. But even with Ireland and the stellar ensemble on board, Blue Ridge fails to live up to its dramatic potential. Despite some powerful and occasional comic scenes, the parts don't add up to a really satisfying whole.

While the characters are all interesting their stories are not fully enough explored since they're basically satellites to Ireland's Alison. Even the individual high drama moments Rosebrock has given them, by play's end we don't see how and if they've actually journeyed to a better way of dealing with their lives. Numerous questions about their backgrounds and interactions remain as frustrating loose ends.

Neither do the scenes from the arrival of Alison at the group home to her departure six months later provide the play with a satisfyingly clear or revelatory thematic purpose. The promotional material's description for Blue Ridge supports this as a story focused on the character of a high-school teacher (Ireland's Alison) with a rage problem that went from a simmer to full boil with her violent retaliatory act prompted by her boss's unacceptable behavior; an act that results in her job suspension and a sentence to six months in the recovery program that sees her bonding with her fellow residents and attending to their healing and but not her own. So you could say that for all the weighty social issues brought to the table along with a timely kinship to the MeToo movement, Ms. Rosebrock's theme is quite simply a variation of Voltaire's tend to your own garden—and Alison is really an old-fashioned buttinsky masquerading as a maverick social activist.

My reservations notwithstanding, Ireland is dynamic enough as that maverick teacher with the rage problem to keep us fairly engaged, as do her on stage colleagues — especially Kyle Beltran (who, if not in this play, might once again repeat his engaging role in the Broadway production of Choir Boy also opening this week) as the guitar playing Wade who's in the program for possession of drugs he became addicted to after an accident.

Though a first-timer at one of such group home therapy sessions would probably be slow to speak up. But because Alison is such a forceful character that it almost makes sense that the play opens with her dominating her first group session and establishing her will-do, aggressive plan to get her life back, per the dialogue excerpt quoted above.

Director Taibi Magar moves things forward realistically and at a somewhat too leisurely pace, taking us through the next six months of more therapy sessions. Some of the dialogue is quite sharp and amusing but what happens mostly has us getting to know why the rest of the residents are there, if not much else. We do see this transient family being forged with the usual special bonds—notably, Alison's determined protection of Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd) and mistrust of Pastor Hern. But, it's not until just before the intermission that the act of rage that removed Alison from her job, saddled with lawyer bills and put her into this rehab program explodes into a highly dramatic plot development.

Unfortunately, this climactic end of the first end peters out into a second act that doesn't seems to be missing a clearer, more sharply focused conclusion. Even the set by Adam Rigg, who so cleverly designed the recent revival of Lynn Nottage's Fabulation and last season's stunning The House That Will Not Stand doesn't live up to the promise of something really meaningful when shades hiding all but a glimpse of the trees outside are finally opened. But there's nothing to indicate anything other than that obviously the beautiful landscape has not kept these people from problematic life choices. And speaking of the locale, a word about the cast's Appalachian accents. The theater's dialect coach par excellence Stephen Gabis has as usually guided them all to speak authentically. Unfortunately, those accents don't make for easy listening (several complaints about inability to understand everything said that I overheard in the ladies included one from a woman who sat in the first row).

The Atlantic Theater is to be commended for supporting new work by little known playwrights, as are the actors for their commitment to making Blue Ridge entertaining enough to almost forgive its flaws.

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Blue Ridge by Abby Rosebrock
Directed by Taibi Magar
Cast (In order of appearance: Marin Ireland (Alison), Nicole Lewis (Grace), Kristolyn Lloyd (Cherie),Kyle Beltran (Wade), Chris Stack (Stack) Peter Mark Kendall (Cole).
Scenic Design: Adam Rigg
Costume Design: Sarah Laux
Lighting Design: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound and original compositions: Mikaal Sulalman
Dialects: Stephen Gabis
Fight Director: Unvle Dave's Fight House
Stage Manager: David Lurie-Perret
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours plus 1 intermission.
Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th St<
From 12/12/18; opening 1/07/18; closing 1/27/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 6th press preview, matinee performance

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