Reviewed by Judy Richter
Lee Hall, who created the fictional account of "Billy Elliot," has turned to actual history for "The Pitmen Painters," being given its West Coast premiere by TheatreWorks. Inspired by a book by William Feaver, this is the dramatized story of a group of coal miners in Ashington, a town of about 27,000 in Northern England's Northumberland, who took an art class through the auspices of the Workers Education Association in 1934 and kept at it for 40 years. The paintings they produced were soon exhibited throughout the country and attracted the attention of art collectors.
Hall consolidates the group to five men along with their instructor, Robert Lyon (Paul Whitworth, and compresses the time into 14 years. Because most of these men had left school to work in the mines at age of 10 or 11, their initial reaction to Lyon's lectures was bafflement. They had never seen a painting. They had no idea who Henry Moore was. However, when Lyon set them to painting, their creativity blossomed. Mostly they painted familiar scenes: men at work in the mines, people in the town, the countryside.
Perhaps the most transformational event occurs near the end of Act 1, when they go to London and see the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. By the end of the play, they're far more articulate and knowledgeable even as they continue to work in the mines.
In her sharply directed production, Leslie Martinson has some of the Bay Area's finest actors to work with. James Carpenter plays George Brown, the union leader who's a stickler for the rules. Jackson Davis plays Jimmy Floyd, while Nicholas Pelczar plays the character called Young Lad, George's enthusiastic nephew.He also has a short scene as a successful artist, Ben Nicholson. Dan Hiatt is Harry Wilson, who works as a dental mechanic (dental technician) rather than the mines because he was gassed during World War I. He's also a socialist. Patrick Jones plays Oliver Kilbourn, one of the most promising artists. He faces the play's major conflict -- whether to stay in his job or accept higher pay as a fulltime artist supported by a wealthy patroness, Helen Sutherland, played by Marcia Pizzo. The cast is completed by Kathryn Zdan as Susan, a model who shows up for class one night to pose in the nude -- much to the men's astonishment.
These fine performances are complemented by Andrea Bechert's set, B. Modern's costumes, Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting, Gregory Robinson's sound and Jim Gross's projections (quite helpful). It's a tribute to these talented actors and artists that this production works so well. However, they can't totally compensate for the play's weaknesses, especially in the second act. That's when the men's horizons have become so much broader and their knowledge so much richer than at the start. The problem, though, is that this act seems stuck on one note as they endlessly talk about art and its meaning. Soon one begins to wonder how Hall will wrap this all up, but he does so on an upbeat note in 1947, when the mines were nationalized.