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Theatre in Review: Coal Country (The Public Theater)

Photo: Joan Marcus.

For this stirring account of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster -- which killed more than two dozen men and exposed a series of illegal and flagrantly unsafe labor practices -- the documentarian playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have teamed up with the singer/songwriter Steve Earle. It's a felicitous alliance, resulting in a true tale of lives squandered in the pursuit of profit, here given the plaintive quality of a classic folk song. It's gripping, laced with heartbreak, and it opens a window on the current American dilemma. Of its kind, it is nearly perfect.

The authors have drawn their account from interviews with seven people -- miners and their loved ones -- whose lives were forever changed by the explosion that detonated a thousand feet underground on April 5, 2010. (As someone notes, the mine's owner Massey Energy, was -- and probably still is -- the only significant employer in Raleigh County, West Virginia. Everyone who lived there was affected by the event.) Each of the characters has something to say, in language that is gritty and terse and rich with often-unspoken emotion.

Gary (Thomas Kopache, clear-eyed and plainspoken), member of a multigenerational miner family, notes that the work was always hard but "you never got treated bad, always got to take your lunch sittin' down and you was never rushed into nothin'," adding, "you didn't worry 'bout gettin' fired by speakin' up." Tommy (Michael Laurence, tense, wiry, and nursing a deep-seated fury), who worked the mine with his brother, son, and nephews, describes going to work in "mantrips," which are "what the men ride on. Just a little tiny locomotive. It'll probably take you an hour and a half to get back to the longwall; that's where the good coal is." (Think about that for a second: men buried deep in the earth, chipping away for hours at a time, cut off from light and fresh air.)

The longwall, says Goose (Michael Gaston, adorably paired with Amelia Campbell as Mindi, his loving hairdresser spouse) is "a thousand-foot-long wall of coal, about three miles down into the mountain. You mine all the way to the tail end, then turn around, move back toward the head. And they just keep doing that 'til all the coal is gone." But when Massey bought the mine from another owner, it was allowed to dispense with the union. As Gary says, "My first non-union shift I worked, the way those bosses yelled at the men? Reminded me of the stories I heard from my grandpa. I said, 'My god, they've taken coal mining back to the 1920s.' And if you complain, they start writing you up, and then they say you're not a good worker, you're fired. And safety started goin' out the window."

When disaster strikes, it is in the form of a fireball generated by a methane explosion, trapping the men working the longwall. Immediately, the corporation moves to protect itself. Even as the frantic families come together, waiting for news of survivors, Massey representatives urge them not to speak to the media. The scene at the "family gathering center" is one of hysteria, spread out over four days, as the loved ones cling to vanishing hope. As a character notes, with devastating finality, "Half my family is dead."

Skipping from speaker to speaker, the action hurtles the characters toward catastrophe, leaving one equally spellbound and filled with dismay. The script is loaded with telling details, each of which lays bare the reach of the tragedy: The image of the aftermath of the explosion, which took "thirty-ton metal equipment and twisted it into pretzels." People falling on the floor in shock when their names are called to identify bodies. A settlement payment that feels so much like blood money that it gets shamefully stashed in a car's glove box.

Further prolonging the collective agony is the prosecution of Don Blankenship, the company's relentless, grasping CEO. "We always said that Massey Energy was his third-world country, and Don was the dictator," Gary says. Facing multiple charges and the possibility of decades behind bars, he gets a slap on the wrist, returning to the area a year later, busily restyling himself as a political prisoner.

The characters of Coal Country are possessed of heroic endurance but seeing how they were manipulated and betrayed certainly clarifies why so many in the heartland feel that the American system is permanently rigged against them. Aside from perhaps one comment -- "We're all complicit because the lights must stay on. I mean, we're addicted to electricity, right? We're addicted to air conditioning, right?" -- the script doesn't consider the awful costs of a carbon-based economy. But, by letting Gary, Tommy, Goose, and the others tell their stories, the authors make an unimpeachable case that unbridled capitalism is lethal to workers. Without ever being explicit about it, Coal Country puts its finger on how the current occupant of the White House won the election.

Blank, who also directed, moves her cast around Richard Hoover's craggy, rough-hewn wooden stage fluidly, the laser precision of David Lander's lighting proving an invaluable asset. (Jessica Jahn's costumes and Darron L West's sound design are also solid.) Earle is onstage throughout, playing the guitar and contributing whiskey-and-tobacco vocals that add an extra layer of authenticity. In the cast, there are also fine contributions from Deirdre Madigan as Judy, a physician whose brother is a miner yet who is also something of an outcast among the gathered families ("I'm a doctor. There's a class division") and from Ezra Knight as Roosevelt, who finds himself grateful for small mercies, among them the fact that his father's body was sufficiently intact to allow for an open casket. Most wrenching of all is Patti, who falls in love with her next-door neighbor, merging their families and building a life that is cruelly snatched away; Mary Bacon's stoic account of the character is remarkable in its understatement.

Surprisingly, such is the power of these characters, so vibrant and eloquent are they that the bleak prospect of Coal Country doesn't leave one depressed or hopeless. Still, the play insists that a country unable to care for its own is failing in some profound and irreversible way. Referencing the hymn "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?," Tommy recalls big family celebrations of the past. "But now," he adds, "nobody does nothing no more. No more family dinners, no more get-togethers, no reunions, nothing. Used to have seven generations here. I say the circle broke." We have been warned. --David Barbour


(4 March 2020)

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