ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, azotheatre.org. $25–$30. Runs Thurs.–Sun. Ends Nov. 24.
“You’re disposable people,” a corrupt sheriff tells a pair of West Virginia meth dealers in the tensest of many tense scenes in this suspenseful stage thriller. But these disposable people will steal your heart even while scrambling from one tragicomic mess to the next, under the skillful direction of Desdemona Chiang. Azeotrope is known for its intense performances of hard-edged texts where the subject and writing don’t aspire to the avant garde. (Red Light Winter, which shares the same cast, is running on alternate nights.) They’re hot-wired traditionalists, an approach well suited to Josh Rollins’ credulity-testing tale, which premiered in Chicago last year.
Charlie (a very fine Tim Gouran) lives for Sammy (Libby Barnard), his missing brother’s girlfriend, whose (offstage) bloody tangle with the sheriff launches the story’s sprint like a starter pistol. Shell-shocked in the cabin doorway, smeared with blood, Sammy strips as Charlie and his best friend/meth colleague Tuck (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) wrestle a wounded deputy into a big wooden trunk. Don’t get distracted by Evan Mosher’s “screaming” crickets or Andrew D. Smith’s ethereal, leaf-filtering lighting ; 25 Saints requires close listening, as crucial plot elements are embedded in rapid torrents of dialogue, making it easy to miss some of Rollins’ story twists.
Even for viewers who loved Breaking Bad, the material can make you uncomfortable; it’s like watching beetles trying to save themselves from drowning in vinegar. Can any of these characters leverage their meth money to escape the Appalachian dirt? (Catherine Cornell’s cramped, shabby set contributes to a sense of claustrophobia and chemical menace.) Each bears the scars of multigenerational poverty and abusive authority. Meanwhile, motives are crossed as to who will flee and who will be ensnared by One Last Score.
Rollins does unfortunately write his villains as cartoons, which undermines the intended realism here. Many of this production’s gems occur in the subtler moments, as when Sammy dons a respirator mask to avoid a conversation, but then removes it to accept a Pringle. For such a purchase price, how can these kids ever hope to escape?