AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Randal Myler & Dan Wheetman
Directed by Randal Myler
Presented by TheatreWorks
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"Hard Working Miner" provides an apt opening to "Fire on the Mountain," a musical examination of Appalachian coal miners' lives presented by TheatreWorks as its 400th production.

Co-creators Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman interviewed hundreds of miners and their families from throughout the area and interspersed their words with three dozen traditional songs performed by a nine-member cast. Myler also directs the show, while Wheetman serves as musical director.

Four of them play string instruments such as guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin. The other five create somewhat consistent characters. All of them sing and dance.

Performed without intermission, the 90-minute show opens with descriptions of the daily lives of the miners and their families. They're mainly light-hearted at first, but descriptions of their hardships are mixed in. The men worked six long days a week in dirty, dangerous conditions, sometimes standing in knee-deep water or lying on their sides for hours at a time. Photos from the time and place are projected onto two large screens to illustrate situations.

These people were virtually enslaved because they had to live in company-provided housing near the mine, shop in the company store with company-issued scrip and educate their children in company-built schools. One boy, played by Nik Duggan, says that when he was 8 years old, he lied and said that he was 10 so that he could work at the mine for 8 cents an hour.

A man played by Robert Parsons says that coal company representatives convinced his parents to sell the mineral rights to their 1,000 acres of fertile farm land for 25 cents an acre -- a mere $250.

Other issues that arise during the show include deadly black lung disease, acquired from breathing coal dust nonstop; the terrible environmental costs exacted on the land and water by strip mining; and efforts to join a union, the United Mine Workers of America.

One wrenching segment deals with an explosion that killed many workers outright and trapped dozens more with no hope of survival. Some miners always carried a tin of morphine with them, apparently to ease their deaths when no hope was left.

Besides Duggan and Parsons, the cast features Marie Shell, Molly Andrews and Harvy Blanks, who do most of the acting. Blanks and Andrews, an expert in Appalachian music, also do much of the singing. Instrumentalist-singers are Karen Celia Heil, David M. Lutken, Tony Marcus and Harry Yaglijian.

The rustic set is by Joe Ragey with effective lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, costumes by Jill Bowers and sound by Brendan Aanes.

Although music forms the centerpiece of this show, the real impact comes from its message and its salute to a resilient group of people who endured hard lives for little reward.

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