Blue Ridge and the Gospel According to Carrie Underwood
Marin Ireland stars in a new play about a high school English teacher's stint at a North Carolina halfway house.
"Before He Cheats" is a Carrie Underwood song about a woman who takes a baseball bat to her unfaithful lover's car — and that's exactly what Alison has done to the Honda owned by the principal of the North Carolina high school where she once taught English. That behavior has landed her in recovery at Saint John's Service House, where at weekly Bible study she invokes another Underwood text: "Jesus, Take the Wheel." It's a disarmingly funny and deceptively faithful way for Alison to introduce herself to the group. In Blue Ridge, Abby Rosebrock's beguiling new dramedy at Atlantic Theater Company, God helps those who help themselves — and Alison knows it.
The title doesn't just refer to the mountains in which this halfway house is located, but the high school Alison (a spectacularly frenzied Marin Ireland) is determined to return to at the end of this enforced sabbatical. Her fellow residents cautiously encourage her as they deal with their own problems: Wade (Kyle Beltran) is recovering from an addiction to painkillers. Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd) is also a recovering addict, but her time at Saint John's has convinced her to pursue a career in social work, perhaps making the transition from resident to counselor. The home is currently run by Pastor Hern (Chris Stack) and Grace (Nicole Lewis), but they're interested in taking on a third employee. The stoic Cole (Peter Mark Kendall) arrives at the house after Alison, sheathed in a cloud of trauma. Rosebrock never fully reveals his backstory, but wondering about the lives of these people before they arrived at Saint John's is one of the things that make Blue Ridge so intriguing.
Rosebrock intimately captures the fragile ecosystem of this group home, a mini-society governed by psychological jargon, scripture, and obsequious courtesy. This decorum may strike observers as ungenuine, but take it away and we see just how easily it can all collapse. Rosebrock and director Taibi Magar also show how, even in this obsessively confessional place, the truth can easily be obscured.
Our first clue to that is the grin plastered across Beltran's face in the opening scene: Is it a smile of genuine mirth, or confused horror? Or is it the generically nonthreatening expression one wears when trying to tune out the conversation without being noticed? As Alison, Ireland steps on the gas powering her bubbly personality: Upon learning that Cherie used to teach high school French, she exclaims, "Okay I juss won the lottery, fer best possible roommate in a halfway house," as if she's just joined a sorority. The fact that all of these characters are Southern (convincing Appalachian twang from dialect coach Stephen Gabis) accentuates their theatrical cheerfulness. Kendall takes the opposite approach with Cole, achieving something close to emotional necrosis in his guarded delivery. It all feels chillingly true to life.
Adam Rigg's set design takes cues from the character list: The mismatched furniture pieces seem randomly drawn together in this mountain shelter, like refugees from the 1970s. Moonlight peeks in from behind tall vertical blinds in Amith Chandrashaker's lighting design, which smartly employs the comforting glow of incandescent floor lamps. Sarah Laux costumes the actors in denim and comfy sweaters, ideal clothing in which to repair.
In its examination of the slippery truth in the artificial environment of recovery, Blue Ridge covers similar territory to Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things. But where Macmillan shocked us, Rosebrock strings us along with fully formed characters, all given relatable and sensitive performances by this excellent cast. These people are struggling to maintain dignity in humbling circumstances. Blue Ridge prods us to consider the little white lies we all tell in order to avert humiliation — and the catastrophic wreckage that can occur when we stop acting, throw up our hands, and let Jesus take the wheel.