In the Appalachian town of Williamson, West Virginia, jobs are scarce and opioids are plentiful. Spay, a new play by Madison Fiedler, focuses on one Williamson family’s struggle with addiction at the height of the opioid epidemic. Sisters Harper and Noah Attridge, played by Krystel McNeil and Rae Gray respectively, are together again under the same roof after Noah’s public overdose at a youth baseball game. Over the course of one sober and sobering week, temptations come knocking at the door with the promise of relief. But at what cost? Rivendell Theatre’s world premiere production, directed by Georgette Verdin, is the promising introduction of a stellar script that deserves consideration from any theatre company currently planning their next season.
Krystel McNeil and Rae Gray ground the production in their lovingly combative relationship as the Attridge sisters. Harper is the maternal figure, a role that her mother’s death and sister’s addiction forced on her at an early age. McNeil commands the stage as the school teacher with a license to carry, her no-nonsense attitude steadily conceding to her growing exhaustion and perpetual concern. Gray’s physical performance alone devastates as the tragically romantic Noah, whose dreams for the future are threatened by the lifelong realities of her addiction. Combined with an enchanting accent that perfectly adopts the playwright’s heartbreaking dialogue, Gray is the tragic hero constantly battling both her own vice and anyone who has something to say about it.
The stressful sibling dynamic is worsened by Noah’s dealer-turned-boyfriend, Jackson. Spencer Huffman’s performance as the sweet-talking devil whispering in Noah’s ear is a charming foil to the matriarch but falls short of the more grounded performances by McNeil and Gray. Rivendell Artistic Director Tara Mallen brings compounding complications to the household as Aubrey, a well-intentioned volunteer with informative pamphlets and a family history painfully similar to that of the Attridges. While the occasional flubbed line disrupts the tension onstage, Mallen skillfully confounds audiences with a sympathetic yet suspicious character.
Appalachia is a mystical part of the country that is, quite literally, older than bones. I used to live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and can attest to the eerie and enchanting Appalachian atmosphere that Spay’s design authentically captures. Lindsay Mummert’s goodwill-furnished mountain home is cleverly cluttered with props by designer Rowan Doe. Costume designer Becca Duff amazes with a true-to-life style that made me nostalgic for my home state… and hungry for Waffle House. Intricate lighting design by Michael Mahlum successfully communicates a looming danger as the days pass. However, the design fumbles with the practical effects in the household, which fail to turn on in one instance but are easily lit in another. Sound design by Joyce Ciesil similarly achieves an overall tone that utilizes signature Appalachian sounds, but the clunky execution makes for a confused aural experience.
Director Georgette Verdin leverages Rivendell’s intimate performance space and makes full use of Mummert’s dynamic set. Verdin’s creative staging shines from scene to scene, but the frequency of dramatic pauses and a consistent dragging pace open up too much room for tension to escape rather than build. The production can’t quite hit the note the script calls for when the play’s motivating conflict reaches a breaking point. A more varied pacing to complement an already wonderful use of the space would take a satisfying conclusion and launch it into the stratosphere. I look forward to seeing future productions of Spay, following its thoughtful and enjoyable premiere at Rivendell.
Spay runs at Rivendell Theatre until April 17th.
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Rae Gray, Noah
Krystel McNeil, Harper
Tara Mallen, Aubrey
Spencer Huffman, Jackson
Madison Fiedler, Playwright
Georgette Verdin, Director
Rashada Dawan, Assistant Director
Deya Friedman, Stage Manager
Lindsay Mummert, Scenic Designer
Michael Mahlum, Lighting Designer
Becca Duff, Costume Designer
Joyce Ciesil, Sound Designer
Rowan Doe, Props Designer
Sammi Grant, Dialect Coach
Catherine Yu, Dramaturg
Erik Strebig, Production Manager, COVID Safety
Claire Yearman Fight Director and Intimacy Choreographer
Denise Yvette Serna, Community Engagement
Brit Cooper Robinson, Community Engagement
Tara Mallen, Rivendell Artistic Director/Producer
Catherine Painter, Rivendell Managing Director
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow