At Miners Alley, regional premiere of Blue Ridge a must-see despite shaky second act

Had we left at intermission, I would have proclaimed Miners Alley Playhouse’s regional premiere of Blue Ridge one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.

But we stayed, and now I’m not sure what to think. But that’s not MAP’s fault. The entire production was near flawless, even breathtaking at times in its intensity and energy. It’s the script that disappoints. It unravels in the second act and ultimately leaves the actors circling around each other and falling back on cliches — in sharp contrast to the intense insights, interaction and intimacy that sparked and simmered in the first act.

Brooklyn-based playwright Abby Rosebrock, who also wrote Dido of Idaho, has crafted some stunning and witty contemporary dialog interspersed with snippets of popular song references in Blue Ridge, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2018. And while the range of characters is impressive, you’re ultimately left with the unsettling feeling that there must be something more coming — but all you get is the abrupt glare of the house lights jolting you back to reality.

Complex characters

The basic plot of Blue Ridge is simple: Alison, a 30-something high-school teacher, is sentenced to six months at a halfway-house after taking an axe to her married lover’s car in a fit of rage. She selected neighboring St. John’s Halfway House in the southern Appalachian Mountains for her rehabilitation based on its stellar reviews on Yelp. While the other residents are there for addiction and are following the 12-step recovery program, Alison doesn’t have to follow the same protocol for her anger issues.

But the depth of Alison’s rage becomes more obvious as we learn that the ex-lover is also her boss, the principal at her school, and this isn’t the first time her simmering fury has erupted over being mistreated by men. Or as she explains to her new housemates, she suffers from “intermittent explosive disorder, or ‘IED.’”

Despite selecting a church-sponsored facility, Alison isn’t interested in religious dogma. She makes her stand during her first group session, when she is asked to introduce herself with a verse from the Bible. Instead, she selects two Carrie Underwood songs that relate to her life: “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” in which a woman whose car is spinning out on a highway prays for divine intervention, and “Before He Cheats,” whose narrator destroys her fickle lover’s truck, an act that seems justifiable to Alison.

It’s soon obvious that Alison is more interested in helping the others solve their issues than she is in resolving her own. In fact, she’s so determined to resume her life as it was, she is pushing for an early release to resume teaching at the same high school under her ex-lover’s authority.

(l-r) Bobby Bennett, Jacqueline Garcia, Simone St. John | Photo: Matthew Gale

Through plot twists and turns, she eventually gets her way, but not without damaging her new friendships and the progress she has made.

Strong performances

Despite the flatness of the second half of the script, there are so many good things about director Len Matheo’s production at MAP that it’s still quite a strong show. Matheo has once again worked his mojo to coax superb performances from local acting pros. This is one of those magical moments in live theatre when you actually forget that the performers are acting and feel as though they are actually the characters they’re portraying.

All but the last few minutes of the play take place in the home’s living room, where the four clients and two counselors interact together and one-on-one as they go about their individual paths to recovery. The small MAP theater is an ideal size for this intimate of a setting, and to make it feel more realistic, Matheo chose to periodically have the characters’ backs to the audience as they’re in a group or having conversations. This partially obscures some faces during critical points in the plot line, but it’s also what makes the play so believable.

Ultimately, it’s the performance of the actors that make the MAP production such a stand-out. Each and every one is the embodiment of their character, with every gesture and word reinforcing the affect.

First and foremost, actor Jessica Robblee, is raw and wild as Alison, the smart, witty woman struggling with her demons. Robblee’s frenetic energy, heavy Southern drawl and near maniacal charm delights, overwhelms and even horrifies at times as the main protagonist. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from this prolific local actor. (And she’s just one of several who brought their best to this production.)

Alison’s ever-moving, rapid-fire, no-holds-barred repartee is a direct contrast to the other recovering housemates.

Simone St. John’s warmth and grace as Alison’s fellow teacher and house roommate, Cherie, is the perfect foil to Robblee’s fierce in-your-face style. Their intense conversations feel like you’re watching two college roommates who are brought together by happenstance but find solace in their similar circumstances. When she confides to Alison about her mysterious texting suitor, the two giggle and bond like two sorority girls. St. John’s flawless performance provides a depth that keeps us grounded and even protective when she eventually feels betrayed by Alison.

Another sympathetic and grounding character is Wade (Bobby Bennett). A soft-spoken, earnest former pain-pill addict, he is trying to focus on his 12-step recovery and find his own path and purpose. Bennet’s Wade is a bit awkward, seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin, but still endearing as he explores his emotions through teaching and playing guitar.

The fourth housemate, Cole, is a late arrival and a bit of an enigma. Jason Maxwell does a masterful job balancing what appears to be a dim-witted blue-collar guy with a surprisingly perceptive former psychiatric patient who can sympathize with Alison’s frustration and rage. A man of few words, he understands Alison’s angst as, in one of her few internal introspections, she cries out in anguish, “What’s wrong with me?” But since he can’t help himself — never mind her — he slowly turns away with his shoulders slumped even further.

The two halfway house counselors round out the cast: Grace (Jacqueline Garcia) and Hern (Chris Berghoff). Hern, the pastor and the founder of the center, is the facility’s authority figure who spurs Alison’s rage simply by being in the same room. She’s focused all of her pent-up fury on him, yet needs him to endorse her early release. Of all the plays I’ve seen Berghoff perform in, I would vote this as one of his best performances. He keeps the character in check and doesn’t overplay his hand, which keeps him sympathetic and relatable.

Garcia’s Grace may be the most pleasant surprise of the play. She’s such a fixture during the first act, where she rallies the patients and keeps things in check with a light but firm hand, you almost overlook her. But she comes into her own in the second act when she reaches out to take control of a situation that is quickly spiraling. Her empathy and strength, which is hinted at during the first half, shine through as she comforts and directs the house’s inhabitants. Garcia does a masterful job of creating connections with the other actors and making the character feel real.

Blue Ridge should be on your must-see list this season. The caliber of the production is among the best you’re likely to see, and although the script gets a bit lost at the end, the first act alone is worth it.