Two Turtle Doves

★★★ ½
Through Nov. 12
Common Ground Theatre, Durham

There’s a hint of the unsavory from the outset of local playwright Mark Cornell’s Two Turtle Doves, now in its premiere production at Common Ground Theatre. The off-avocado wallpaper and aged amenities on designer Jeff Alguire’s set suggest a time-share resort half gone to seed. And after Meredith, a sullen girl with a flat east Carolina accent, cusses out a hotel clerk on the phone, our unease is unabated when a visibly uncomfortable—and much older—man named James emerges from the bathroom in a snorkel and swimsuit and tries to sweeten her mood.

Soon enough we find out he’s her boss, and that he’s brought her to Hawaii for the holidays. You can do that, apparently, when you’re rural royalty—the tournament-winning coach of the girl’s high school basketball team—and when your wife has recently taken your kids and left. Then we discover that Meredith was his student just a few short years ago. After that, we learn that this is not the first time, or the first year, that the pair has shared the same room without the benefits of clothing.

But Cornell’s edgy two-hander is much more than a study in small-town sleaze. After a particularly brutal practice session, the team’s point guard has tried to kill herself. James has been suspended from his post, and the tactics he’s used in training the girls are now the subject of a lawsuit claiming emotional and mental abuse.

Under Shelby Hahn’s first-time direction, Jaybird O’Berski’s keyed-up James prowls the stage like a caged animal as his character tries to extricate himself from paradise to return home and fight the allegations. That cornered quality only intensifies as Meredith (Alice Rose Turner), now his assistant coach, reflects on, and increasingly criticizes, his former treatment of her as a player.

In a pressurized referendum on the ultimate price for winning at all costs, Meredith assails James’s ruthlessness as well as a system that tears down its players before spitting them out. “We play for you, we win for you, but, in the end, it’s all for you,” Meredith insists. “We don’t get nothing left for us.”

Hahn effectively explores the broken chemistry between the two. But after a late plot twist, Turner leaves us unconvinced about the depths of her character’s true ambivalence. Until then, Two Turtle Doves interrogates the ethics of the pursuit of excellence as a young woman reassesses what the process has made of her—and if it can possibly be unmade.