Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pitmen Painters Portrayed by Dramaworks

The life of a miner is like no other. Miners are born into a mining family. Their fathers did it before them and their fathers before. It was the lucky son who broke away, but most miners did not leave, could not leave, and they slogged through their days, and those who did not die because of mining accidents, could be expected to die at an early age because of black lung disease from coal dust, or live with emphysema or chronic bronchitis. As hostile as the environment was to the body, it also wrecked the soul.

The Pitmen Painters is a true story about English miners who in 1934, with the assistance of the "Workers Educational Association," engaged an academic art teacher, Robert Lyon, for an "art appreciation" class, but as these workers had never even seen a painting, and didn't have the vocabulary to discuss painting, Lyon turned it into a class of "doing" painting instead of teaching. Their first assignment was to paint something that relates to their work, which of course is the only thing they ever had known. From that point they went on the most unlikely artistic journey as a group, which is what the play is all about, unleashing their individual creative spirits. Although the painting miners embrace their new passion, they still go back to the mines to work each and every day.

The play is by Lee Hall, creator of the film and musical Billy Elliot. Hall grew up in Northumberland in northeast England, the home of the great mines that fueled the industrial revolution. By chance he came across a copy of The Pitmen Painters by William Feaver in the bin of a bookshop on the Strand near Covent Garden, a familiar a scene to me as our UK publishing distributor was at 3 Henrietta Street and I can imagine his thrill discovering the work nearby. The play was inspired by Feaver's history.

It is an interesting choice of properties by Bill Hayes, the Producing Artistic Director of Dramaworks which is in the middle of its first season at its new theatre on Clematis Street, also its most successful season, artistically and commercially. The basic staging is a simple barren brick meeting hall of the Ashington miners which serves perfectly for the many scene changes in conjunction with the overhead visual projections which illuminate the various paintings that scroll by during the evening.

And the play is brought to life by its director J. Barry Lewis, taking full advantage of Dramaworks' new larger stage and its new audio visual technical muscle, with the "help" of the Production Stage Manager, James Danford, who thinks of his role during rehearsals as "executive secretary" but on opening night is promoted to "Captain of the Ship." And, indeed he is Captain (although, as a disclaimer, we saw the first preview; opening night is not until tomorrow) as the play progresses through a fluid chorography of audio visual montages. In other words, the scenic design is an ever changing one, the timing of the changes critical to the movement of the play and the role of the actors. At a "lunch and learn" before last night's first preview, J. Barry Lewis noted that "the design of the play is a work of art itself." Indeed it is, and its intricate interactive nature will undoubtedly improve with the passing of repeated performances.

There are many themes that Hall deals with, class immobility, socialism, the drudgery of the mines juxtaposed to the ethereal nature of art, but the tension of the play comes from the rights or expectations of the individual vs. the group and Hall combines this with a shrewd sense of humor and timing. In fact most of the play's miners frequently have comic roles in contrast to the one who succeeds most as an artist, Oliver Kilbourn. I loved the exchange between Oliver, the "student" and Robert the "teacher" who, when sketching Oliver, is criticized by Oliver for not capturing his essence as a human being. The student becomes the teacher. Societal class becomes topsy-turvy.

As the art establishment eventually "finds" the Pitmen Painters -- and they had a number of exhibits which encompass much of the play -- their fame gives Oliver an opportunity to leave the group to become a professional artist when he is offered a stipend, more than he is paid in the mines, by a wealthy art benefactor, Helen Sutherland. This becomes the core dramatic element of the play, as Oliver agonizes about leaving the group and everything he knows -- after all, mining is his "family" -- and the group itself debates on whether that is proper and who "owns" the paintings, the individuals, or, as is argued by George Brown, who represents the Workers Educational Association, the Association itself. Ironically, Oliver meets a professional painter he has admired, Ben Nicholson, a member of the British educated class, and who is also the recipient of a stipend from Helen. But it is Nicolson who professes his admiration of Oliver as he is "free," unbounded by the shackles of being attached to a patron. So Oliver does not become dependent on Helen and remains the "miner-painter."

After WW II the group eagerly looks forward to the benefits of socialism, the National Health Service, and the continuing support of the Workers Educational Association. But change is underfoot and by 1984 the group is disbanded, but not without their realization of what art has meant to their lives, as a group and as individuals. In our own economic times, when government is so eager to undermine the support of the arts under the guise of economic prudence, there is much gleaned from this play.

I offer an observation which is not a criticism per se, but a characterization of the play. When towards the end Oliver again meets Helen at one of the exhibits of the Ashington miners, she is more critical of the group's work, saying it lacks a certain "sexuality" or passion. The play itself leaves something wanting in that area. It is a wonderful dramatized story, well worth the 2-1/2 hour running time, including intermission -- and never a dull moment -- but Pitmen Painters is not great drama per se. Nonetheless, Dramaworks makes it great theatre.

Professionalism characterizes Dramaworks' productions and this is no more evident than their choice of actors, in this case all members of Actors' Equity, and many veterans of previous Dramaworks productions or other South Florida stages. Foremost, is Declan Mooney's heartrending portrayal of Oliver Kilbourne's journey from naiveté to knowledgeable artist. He is the dramatic center of the action. Two other Dramaworks veterans, Dennis Creaghan (George Brown) and Colin McPhillamy (Jimmy Floyd) demonstrate outstanding comic timing which is so important to the play, the perfect offset to the weighty themes of the production. John Leonard Thompson (Robert Lyon) plays his role as the London art instructor with intensity and sensitivity toward his unlikely students, a stark contrast to his role as "Teach" in American Buffalo, showing his range. Newcomer to Dramaworks (but highly experienced actor who acted once with my heart-throb, Ann-Margret) Rob Donohoe (Harry Wilson) is perfect as the impassioned Socialist who remains a member of the group even though he can no longer mine as he was gassed in WW I and has a breathing disorder, becoming, instead, the group's "dentist" providing still other comic opportunities. Joby Earle competently plays two roles, "the Young Lad" and Ben Nicholson, and last but not least, the two women in the play, Kim Cozort (Helen Sutherland) and Betsy Graver (Susan Parks), were professional in every way and incandescent against the stark stage in their costume designs by Erin Amico.

And kudos to the Dialect Coach, Ben Furey, who helped to make the Ashington accent believable but intelligible to the South Florida audience, and the actors who assimilated that difficult accent.

Yet another memorable night at Dramaworks, South Florida's finest theatre.