Even when she’s sitting still — which admittedly is a rare occurrence — Alison is a gale-force presence. Portrayed by the never disappointing Marin Ireland in Abby Rosebrock’s “Blue Ridge,” the emotionally congested play that opened Monday night at the Linda Gross Theater, this disgraced high-school English teacher is one of those unsettling people who suck up all the oxygen in a room in one convulsive gulp.
You could call her a life force or, as one of her sometime friends does, “a terrorist.” Alison, after all, has wound up in a North Carolina Christian halfway house, the setting for this Atlantic Theater Company production, because she took an ax to the car of her married lover, who was also the principal of the school where she worked.
Cue Carrie Underwood, whose pop hit “Before He Cheats” describes a similar act of vengeance and is cited in the opening scene of “Blue Ridge,” directed by Taibi Magar. It is one of two songs Alison uses to define herself in her first mandatory group meeting.
The second is also by Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” which is about giving yourself over to divine guidance, or as Alison sees it, letting go and chilling out “when you’re gonna look crazy and lose all your friends.” This is not a message she seems to have taken to heart.
That’s good news for fans of Ms. Ireland, one of New York theater’s most inspired and entertaining interpreters of people programmed to self-destruct. It is a gift she has put to virtuosic use in plays as varied as Sarah Kane’s “Blasted” and Tennessee Williams’s “Summer in Smoke.”
Here, she pours such mesmerizing energy and inventiveness into Alison’s wrecking-ball antics that you almost forget that this charming, dangerous woman doesn’t quite track as a credibly motivated character. And as the show’s tone veers from anxious comedy into psychodrama, with each of the characters erupting into set-rattling implosion, it becomes increasingly hard to suspend disbelief.
Scenes that should have you in tears are likely to leave you unmoved. And when a last-minute revelation is slipped in, almost parenthetically, about Alison’s past, you may feel that “Blue Ridge” hasn’t played fair with its audience.
The South Carolina-born Ms. Rosebrock, whose earlier works include “Dido of Idaho,” has a nice feel for barbed comic dialogue and for topical references that quickly and unobtrusively define a time and place. Less felicitously, she uses similar shortcuts in forging relationships among her characters.
These struggling souls include the founders of the faith-based rehab center — Hern (Chris Stack), a handsome minister who likes the sound of his own sermons, and the efficient, maternal Grace, played by the excellent Nicole Lewis. (Adam Rigg did the cozy, perfectly detailed institutional set, with glimpses of mountain vistas beyond.)
The residents here (please don’t call them inmates) include Alison’s roommate and confidante, Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), a former French teacher with a drinking problem, and Wade (Kyle Beltran), who is overcoming an addiction to pain pills. Then there’s Cole (Peter Mark Kendall), a sweet-faced, reticent military veteran who arrives later in the play.
As is to be expected when a crew of variously damaged individuals is assembled in a confined space for the purposes of theater, friendships, enmities, rivalries and erotic attractions bloom and fester. Steered with a steady hand by the fast-rising Ms. Magar (“Underground Railroad Game,” “Is God Is”), none of the cast members oversell the attendant conflicts and confrontations.
Mr. Kendall, a young actor to watch, is especially persuasive as a lost, unsophisticated country boy who, a few sweet eccentricities aside, is as normal as blueberry pie until he very clearly isn’t. Watch his face during the play’s one sex scene, in which pleasure and dismay war for dominance and everything we’ve learned about Cole so far seems to click naturally into place.
Collectively, though, Ms. Rosebrock’s dramatis personae carry too much heavy baggage — involving race and class as well as mental illness and dependency problems — to be sorted through in a breezy two hours of stage time. And the exposure of a secret romance feels jimmied into place.
Still, admirers of Ms. Ireland won’t leave the theater hungry. Alison may say she isn’t addicted to anything, but she’s clearly addicted to attention. Ms. Ireland artfully renders her as a restless, psychodramatic cutup, full of “quips and cranks and wanton wiles” (to quote Milton, which seems appropriate in discussing an English teacher), and you can understand how she might have captivated her high school students.
At one group meeting, she even rolls on the floor quoting Blanche DuBois from “A Streetcar Named Desire” to make sure she commands center stage. Which may well have you salivating at the prospect of Ms. Ireland taking on that ultimate damaged heroine of American theater.
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