There’s a startling phrase introduced in the final minutes of Joshua Rollins’ gritty, rural-gothic “25 Saints,” a mere three words that turn an otherwise pulpy potboiler into a somewhat more perspicacious thriller.

That phrase is “the American drug,” a reference in Rollins’ story to the methamphetamine production under way in the West Virginia cabin in the woods in “25 Saints.” It’s uttered by the play’s most compelling figure, a murderous yet oracular sheriff (a large performance by James Lapan) who likens the long hours, frenetic pace and low pay of meth manufacturing to decreasing expectations of a modern American middle class stuck in McDonald’s and Wal-Mart jobs.

If that’s not fatalistic enough, Lapan’s character — a small-town despot — sketches a vision of an environmentally and economically despoiled Appalachia as a forgotten world where every destiny circles destruction and corruption is currency.

Destruction looms over the drama’s three principals from the start. In a violent opening scene, in the Azeotrope production at ACT Theatre, Charlie (Tim Gouran), a noble sap paying off his missing brother’s debt to drug lords by cooking meth for them, and his friend Tuck (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) beat a sheriff’s deputy (fatally, they presume) after the latter sexually assaults Sammy (Libby Barnard).

The incident hastens the trio’s long-nurtured plans to escape from meth servitude, but a savvy lieutenant (Mary Murfin Bayley) in the illicit trade lets them know she’s watching.

It’s hard to muster compassion or even interest in these boxed-in losers, but empathy isn’t the point of “25 Saints.” With their individual agendas, secrets, lies, gullibility and dashed hopes, Sammy, Charlie and Tuck drag one another to spectacular doom.

The real essence of “25 Saints” is the sound of dreams splashing hard on rocks before being dragged out to sea. Among Rollins’ near-monologues about wishful thinking, two or three (especially lovely ramblings by Mariel Neto’s pizza-delivery girl) are particularly lyrical.

(Note: “25 Saints” runs in repertory at ACT with an encore of Seattle theater company Azeotrope’s well-received staging of “Red Light Winter” by Adam Rapp. Both plays are directed by Desdemona Chiang.)

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com