For novelist and playwright Jim Grimsley, the place where Atlanta's Peachtree Street meets Tobacco Road is an isolated, shadowy place of violence, suspense and fear called "The Borderland."
Here, the empty life of an emotionally suffocating urban couple runs smack up against the untamed passions of feral natives. This is contemporary Southern Gothic, overheated to perfection and stylishly served up in a riveting production by Arlington's Trumpet Vine Theatre Company.
Director Keith Waters has found the right formula for presenting this tension-filled story of an archetypal dark and stormy night in the countryside outside Atlanta. His capable cast plays it straight, allowing the neat, linear plot to unfold absent postmodern irony. A wild man is just outside the door, a storm is raging and the lights suddenly go out? Just gasp and get on with it. There's no need for mockery or even the slightest satirical reaction, tempting though it might be.
Waters's restraint allows the viewer to enjoy the play simultaneously on two tracks or just relish the action. On the surface, it's an old-fashioned, taut war of nerves. A soft, city-bred yuppie tries to protect his home, his spouse and his manly honor from a sadistic good ol' boy trying to get to his bruised wife, hidden by the couple. While the men crash about like dinosaurs, the women, one frustrated and childless, the other a fecund, ostensibly fragile creature, pick up the pieces.
Grimsley's deeper messages glow just below the surface. There's a look at class bigotry and resentment, substantial subtext about the way couples can inflict emotional and physical violence on each other and a search for the reasonable limit of one's responsibility for others. There's a lot going on in this murky border area between idealized life and daily reality.
Greg Glover generates and maintains sympathy as Gordon, the status-conscious husband who learns that he must undergo a fertility test just before a lower-class brute invades his new country showplace.
Alice Gordon quietly seethes with frustration as his wife, Helen, who has abandoned her career and life in the big city to raise a child but only gets to raise her voice while needling her husband. (Gordon: "You know how much I want a baby." Helen: "Then you'll have to do more than paint the nursery!")
Steve Lebens lets us see the abusive Jake's multiple layers. He's sadistic but also wily and self-righteous in his own twisted way. As his battered spouse, Eleanor, Shannon Dunne perfectly embodies victimhood, her permanent stance a cower. Dunne remains a bit of a blank slate, however, perhaps deliberately to leave the viewer to decide whether Eleanor's ultimate action can be seen as bleak resignation or an unheralded act of courage.
Waters's only misstep is having Lebens go overboard when Jake first enters the home, loping apelike across the living room to do everything but take a bite out of the cups to signal his awareness that more than two have been drinking coffee.
The physical design is sumptuous. Ellen Bone's evocative lighting subtly charges the atmosphere as late afternoon gives way to an evening thunderstorm. Vincent Worthington's living room set celebrates well-ordered domestic tranquility and restraint, down to the carefully placed family photo on the bookcase and the Scotch in the decanter.
The unaccredited costume design has Helen lounging about in gold necklace and high heels, as if she is June Cleaver minus Wally and the Beav.
There's one slight quibble with the otherwise excellent sound design from David Meyer, however. Aren't those crickets loud and happy-sounding, considering that violent rainstorm is underway? Even for savage country crickets?
"The Borderland," by Trumpet Vine Theatre Company, runs through April 5, at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Dr., Arlington. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. April 5. For tickets or information, call 703-912-1649.