We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The notes for the Trumpet Vine Theatre Company’s The Borderland state: “There will be one 10-minute intermission.” That would seem to be the most accurate of the claims in the program. Artistic director Keith Waters tells us we’re going to see a “gripping psychological thriller,” but the saggy, fitfully melodramatic action onstage does not grip, thrill, or reveal much knowledge of the human mind. Atlanta-based playwright Jim Grimsley implies that he’s gone out on a limb by exploring “the myth of the noble poor person,” but his approach to busting that particular straw man involves a pair of Deliverance escapees who call their offspring “young’uns.” And Grimsley intends the evening to end “with the sense of a deep catharsis, both for the characters onstage and the audience.” Alas, both sets seem to have been denied this release.

Grimsley’s setup for the four-person drama is promising. The Hammonds are affluent 30-somethings raised in suburban Atlanta. Accountant Gordon (Greg Glover) has just gotten a promotion, and he and Helen (Alice Gordon) are going to try to make babies, so she’s quit her job and they’ve moved to a McMansion in a newly exurban area Helen visited as a child. Gordon takes his drinks neat and his Dockers neater; his romanticized ardor for the countryside is patently shallow—the production’s second-most-amusing moment is his soliloquy about the beauty of “farms and stuff.” But his Green Acres attitude doesn’t extend to the locals. When he finds that Helen has been chatting with neighbor Eleanor (Shannon Dunne), he rattles off a rant about “that woman…with the washing machines on the porch; she has about 60 children.” So when Eleanor appears at the door, soaked by a rainstorm, bruised, and seeking shelter from her husband, the plot turns on how the Hammonds will cope when the domestic turmoil of their social inferiors intrudes into their home.

Vincent Worthington’s set design for that home is note-perfect, straight out of the transitional/Mission showroom of JCPenney. An unnamed costumer has outfitted the Hammonds in suburban-invader chic, neither practical for the country nor stylish, indicative of the wearers’ button-down mind-set. Eleanor’s thin frock emphasizes both her frailty and her feminine vulnerability, and husband Jake (Steve Lebens) dons a camo parka that adds a predatory touch. (His Budweiser gimme cap, though, is way too shiny—clearly he bought it when he and the young’uns went to Busch Gardens.)

The arrival of Jake kick-starts the plot, such as it is. There are tense little arguments, and mild bloodshed, and red-herring threats to the family dog, and the inevitable pre-intermission power outage—which spurs the production’s first-most-amusing moment, when the second half begins and Helen lights 12 matching votive candles arrayed geometrically around the room, like Vern just before Paige comes in for the reveal.

Grimsley establishes his yuppie refugees as passive-aggressive, emotionally depleted boobs-in-the-woods. As Gordon, Glover initially vacillates between two tones—condescending and peeved—with later additions of mildly righteous indignation and helplessness. It is hard to care enough even to dislike him. The suggestion that he might be sterile may symbolize a spiritual barrenness, but we need to believe that he has a real love for something: his wife, perhaps, or his 401(k), or his own pallid flesh. Helen is more sympathetic—she’s the play’s conscience, and her character has an arc, if only from hopeful stasis to hopeless stasis. But for most of the second half, she wallows with her husband in a morass of cluelessness and inaction. Her character has more opportunities than any other to change the situation, but she’s overshadowed by Gordon—it’s no coincidence that wives Helen and Eleanor have similar names.

The po’ folks provide what momentum there is. Lebens seems to be having fun with Jake—for this bubba to be any more of a stereotype, he’d have to have chaw-juice on his chin and “HATE” and “LOVE” on his dragging knuckles. Jake knows what the Hammonds think of him and plays on their fears, swaggering across the Persian rug and propping his boots on the coffee table, but the undercurrent of menace is not constant—Lebens can’t manage the hee-haws and the terror at the same time. As Eleanor, Dunne is the cast member most in the moment. Her body language is as striking as her cynicism—Eleanor is simply too beaten down to be an idealist. By all external indications, we should feel real compassion for her.

But Grimsley motivates his characters by shoving them from one nonsituation into another, rather than constructing a predicament with the look and feel of reality. When danger ensues, why don’t the Hammonds summon the sheriff? He’s a buddy of Jake’s, but at the very least, why don’t they—or at least the somewhat engaged Helen—call him and let him drop the ball, rather than dithering around on their own? Are we to believe that this nouveau manse has only the one phone? Can’t Helen call from the bedroom? This dilute version of Albee’s George and Martha—they shoot honey-and-poison verbal darts at each other even as they’re tending to the battered Eleanor—ought to be perfectly capable of lying to each other.

The play is littered with such lapses of logic. If it rains every afternoon, as the Hammonds repeatedly observe, why is this particular storm made out to be so ominous? Why can’t Gordon go around in back of the house to reset the breakers after Jake has apparently cut the power? If Jake is mean enough to send his wife fleeing from her house, then how come Gordon and Helen don’t flee him too? Could it be because Helen might ruin the tasteful low-heeled pumps she customarily wears for hanging out in the window seat, knitting and whining?

Even more distracting is Helen’s closing of a door flung open by the intruder, thereby shutting all the combatants into the foyer. It makes no emotional sense to cut off your own escape route, even if you’re too much of a wuss (or a poorly drawn character) to use it. Almost as ridiculous is the fact that these frightened people, with the threat lurking somewhere outside, sit with their backs to the bay window.

But perhaps the worst error is that a respectable theater company, with actors who look great on paper and sometimes onstage, would decide to waste its considerable resources with such a poorly sketched script. Grimsley’s play offers us little insight into domestic violence, cultural differences, exurbanization, or ourselves. All I got out of The Borderland was a nice view of a cute little Arts and Crafts armchair. Maybe they’ll raffle it off when the run ends. CP