Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Coal Country: Docudrama with a Pulse

Steve Earle (right) in Coal Country at The Public Theater in New York City. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Steve Earle’s haunting, melodic folk music is the lyrical pulse of the docudrama Coal Country, which is playing upstairs at the Public Theater. Earle wanders onto the stage of the Anspacher with his trademark air of bemused irony, sits down stage left and begins to sing a John Henry song, which functions as a general introduction to the play’s story about some other men and a big machine. In this case it’s the Massey Energy Company, which took over the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, made it non-union and ran it in violation of safety standards until it exploded in April of 2010, killing twenty-nine men. (The company’s chief executive, Donald Blankenship, was sentenced to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine, and when he got out he claimed he’d been framed by the government. He’s still using his fantastic version of the story as a platform for a hopeful political career.) The Public commissioned the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen, who had taken on the subject of innocent men on Death Row in The Exonerated , to develop the piece based on interviews with the Montcoal community, who show up in Coal Country in the roles of survivors and mourners, four men and two women. Blank also directed.

The first third of the show is earnest and well-intentioned but a little banal as it sets the background for the what happened at the U.B.B. mine. Earle’s songs, which he sings sometimes solo, sometimes in collaboration with the actors, are the single distinguishing feature. But then the explosion occurs and the play begins to soar. It becomes unflinching and devastating, and its emotional range expands. We get the terror of the two wives (Amelia Campbell and Mary Bacon) who have to wait to learn whether their men have made it out of the burning mine and the agony of the father (Michael Laurence), one of the first escapees, whose son and brother and nephew are among the casualties. We get the experiences of the bereaved who insist on seeing the remains – a section that Jensen and Blank approach with so much directness that its honesty transcends the grimness of the content and achieves a tragic purity. And we get unexpected, off-the-beaten-track anecdotes, like that of the woman (Deirdre Madigan) whose brother is among the missing but who is treated as an outsider because, though she grew up in poverty like every other coal miner’s daughter, she went to college and medical school and there’s now a class barrier between her and her one-time community.

Laurence and Campbell are less convincing than the rest of the ensemble; they act too strenuously. And I wish Blank had coaxed the performers to fight tears rather than give into them, which is always more interesting to watch. But most of the acting is excellent and Thomas Kopache, Ezra Knight and especially the ubiquitous character actor Michael Gaston – you’ll know him when you see him – are particularly moving. By sheer chance I taught Barbara Kopple’s famous 1977 documentary Harlan Country U.S.A., which I hadn’t seen in years, to a class last week. It’s Kopple’s investigation into the coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, where, forty years after the events that had earned the community the nickname “Bloody Harlan,” the next generation, now finally represented by a union uncorrupted by gangsterism, is still dealing with the fight for basic human needs. My students were knocked out by the movie, which felt as real to them as if it had been ripped from yesterday’s headlines. Indeed it might almost have been: Coal Country takes place only ten years ago.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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