Most reviews of 25 Saints dwell on its first few seconds, when playwright Joshua Rollins lays out his story's awful stakes. The lights come up on the interior of a run-down shack, cluttered with gas masks and other telltale meth-making gear. A reggae version of John Denver's "Country Roads" plays for a few quiet bars before the door bangs open and four people charge through: two young men carrying a sheriff's deputy, and a screaming young woman. They're all panicked, shouting, and covered in blood. The young men wrestle with the wounded deputy before shoving him into a large wooden chest and beating him with a hammer until he stops moving. They slam the lid closed and sit on it, panting. One turns to the other and says: "So. Now what?"

That question is the rest of the play—Rollins could've used Now What? as an alternate title. The three young people deliberate about what to do (burn the body or sink it in the lake? Cook one last batch of meth to pay off their debts and skip town? Run immediately?), giving Rollins time to fill us in on who they are, how they got here, and the corrupt Appalachian world they're trapped in. In fact, 25 Saints is almost all exposition, which is the play's essential weakness—but the tensions are high and the lead performances are urgent, making that flaw easy to overlook. (Azeotrope is performing 25 Saints in repertory with Red Light Winter, Adam Rapp's play about two young American men who get wrapped up in a love triangle with a sex worker in Amsterdam.)

The central presence in 25 Saints is actually an absence—a young man who racked up major debts with local meth kingpins, knocked up his girlfriend, and blew up a meth lab before disappearing. His brother, Charlie, has dropped out of college to return and save the lives his brother abandoned. Charlie looks after the girlfriend, Sammy, and cooks meth to pay off the debt with his brother's also-indebted friend Tuck, a veteran whose hand was blown off after he petted a dog that insurgents had sewn a bomb into. 25 Saints does not spare any tragic details.

Tim Gouran plays Charlie as a man trying to do good in bad circumstances and struggling to keep himself in one piece while the contradictions in his life are trying to tear him apart. In one sense he's noble, having sacrificed himself to save the lives of others caught up in his brother's mess—but that so-called nobility involves dropping out of college, cooking meth for some evil bosses, falling in love with his brother's ex-girlfriend, and now thinking of how to dispose of the body of a deputy. (The deputy had raped Sammy, further confounding any attempt to sort out what justice should look like in the world of this play.) Charlie is a complicated man, and Gouran's performance seethes with conflicted energy trying to contain itself.

Sammy is another ball of conflicts, and Libby Barnard's performance oscillates between pugnacious defiance and such hurt that she can't bring herself to look anyone in the eye. Unfortunately, Rollins gives Sammy some incongruously florid passages. In one scene, as she fantasizes with Charlie about running away to Virginia Beach, she says: "Go to sleep with the smell of the ocean. Wake up to the smell of bread... the sun will burn all our scars away." Barnard sells it fairly well, but that moment puts a pin in the conundrum of this production—the lead actors give good performances, but it sometimes feels like they're making the best of uneven material. recommended