Usually when theatre tackles the subject of art is does so through the eyes of artists (Red, Sunday in the Park with George), or at least looks at art through the lense of educated men (Art). Yet the brilliance of Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters comes from its fresh approach of showing the impact of art on a group of English coal miners (aka “Pitmen”) in the 1930s and 1940s. The award-winning play is now receiving a smart and entertaining area debut at 1st Stage just three years after a limited sold-out run on Broadway in 2010.
The story opens in 1934 with five men who have signed up for an art appreciation course sponsored by the Worker Educational Association. All are actual or would-be miners working in the local coal pits in northern England, a world known well by playwright Lee Evans. Evans’ greatest claim to fame is being the writer of the screenplay for the film Billy Elliott (2000) and the book and lyrics of the musical version of Billy Elliot (West End 2005, Broadway 2008) in which the music was written by Elton John.
The two actual miners are Oliver and Jimmy. Oliver (Dylan Myers) is an intelligent and solitary soul. Jimmy (Jason Tamborini) is simpler, more gregarious fellow who is just looking for an excuse to get out of the house one night a week, and if the world of art also allows for the occasional chance to snack on gallery hors d’oeuvres or see a pretty girl willing to model nude for the class (the appealing Stephanie Schmalzie as “Susan”), so much the better.
George (Alden Michels) has graduated from the coal pits by becoming a union representative and he is a stickler for rules and propriety. Harry would be working the mines except that his lungs were damaged by poison gas in WWI so now he occupies himself working as a dental assistant (or “dental mechanic” as he puts it) when not spouting Marxist political opinions. Finally, there’s a Young Lad (Ryan Alan Jones) who has been on the dole since school while waiting for a coal mining job.
When the visiting instructor Robert Lyon (Matt Dewberry) starts showing the class slides of naked cherubs and other subjects painted by Renaissance master, he soon realizes that these working class men don’t have the background or the artistic vocabulary to discuss these works. He then decides to require them to paint pictures from their own lives for the class to discuss. The men are reluctant, but from the start they produce powerful and original works.
In fact, the men are so successful that in time the teacher is able to arrange a gallery exhibition that promotes them to national prominence and draws the attention of heiress/art collector Helen Sutherland. (Before you roll your eyes over how unrealistic that plot twist is, know that the play is based upon a real-life group of blue collar painters known as the Ashington Group, although the numbers of painters is condensed for dramaturgical purposes.)
At every stage of the play the intellectual development of the men is accompanied by pleasing if sometimes predictable character comedy. For example, you can expect that George, the stickler for rules played with a nice mixture of authority and charm by Alden Michels, will be the one objecting to using a projector without a member of the electricians union present, and that the idea of having a nude model is scandalous!
Similarly, the story has just enough plot to keep the audience’s attention. The major conflict involves whether Oliver should accept an offer of a stipend from Helen Sutherland and leave the coal mines to try becoming a real artist and member of the British artistic community.
Yet the real joy of the play comes from watching the painters learn how to discuss art intelligently, to appreciate how art can contribute to their lives, to be amazed by a trip to see great works of art at the Tate Museum in London, and at times to be genuinely stirred by the feelings that can be provoked by art. [Note: if you are worried that the play will be hard on your imagination, it uses three projection screens to show the same artwork featured in the original production.] When a certain painting provokes Jimmy to tell the story of when he first started underground mining at age 10, the touching rendition by Jason Tamborini can genuinely give you shivers.
Speaking of fine acting, everyone in the cast deserves kudos. Matt Dewberry strikes a near perfect balance in making the art teacher likeable enough that you can forgive his patronizing approach to the blue collar artists and his own personal ambition. Ryan Alan Jones is outstanding in a short turn doubling as an artist under Lady Sutherland’s patronage, giving a droll and intelligent introduction to the game of the art world. James Miller takes Harry, a character that could be a one-note political speaker in lesser hands, and finds a way to imbue him with depth.
The Pitmen Painters
Closes October 13, 2013
1st Stage Theatre
1524 Spring Hill Road
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Details and tickets
Now that the specter of the original production has been raised, there is a major distinction which actually favors the 1st Stage production in this critic’s mind. Although it may not be as historically accurate, the 1st Stage cast appears younger. That distinction serves to up the stakes in the story since the men achieve fame at an early enough stage in their lives for it to offer them real possibilities.
Those possibilities are especially open to the talented Oliver, and Dylan Myers makes the character’s conflict over a potential artistic career both realistic and agonizing. In addition, MiRan Powell’s portrayal of Helen Sutherland has even more sexual subtext as we wonder whether she is more interested in Oliver the painter or Oliver the man. Powell also gives her character just a touch more whimsy that makes her character more interesting and her casually dispensed opinions all the more cutting.
The willingness to undertake such an ambitious play as The Pitmen Painters and the ability to perform it so well again demonstrates that 1st Stage is a jewel (though an underappreciated one) in the area’s theatrical community. It is staggering to survey the roll of outstanding, often challenging, productions this company has produced in five short years. If you have never taken the opportunity to experience 1st Stage first-hand, The Pitmen Painters is an excellent opportunity to understand why this company is such a valuable addition to the DC theatre scene.
The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall . Directed by Stevie Zimmerman . Featuring Alden Michels, Dylan Myers, Jason Tamborini, Ryan Alan Jones, James Miller, Matt Dewberry, Stephanie Schmalzle, and MiRan Powell. Set design: Steven Royal . Sound design: Bradley C. Porter . Lighting design: Kristin A. Thompson . Costumes: Katie Touart . Props: Cindy Landrum Jacobs . Projections: Tewodross Melchishua . Dialect coach: Alexander Strain . Stage manager: Keta Newborn. Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.