"Write what you know," they tell you, on your first night in a writer's workshop. "Make our lives art," is the way the miners put it in Lee Hall's excellent "The Pitmen Painters," which is having its West Coast premiere at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through February 12.
Hall, who is well known for his film and stage adaptation of "Billy Elliot," is mining familiar turf here. Where Billy was the savant dancer in a world of coal miners, here the miners, or pitmen, have produced from their ranks a group of inspirational painters. The difference is that "Pitmen" is a true story. The Ashington Group was established in 1934 by coal miners from Northumberland. These were men who had quit school at eleven to go down in the mine. They had no formal education and no knowledge of art, and yet they turned out a collection of work which touchingly depicted the miners' lives in the north of England at that time, and lives on to this day.
Judging from the order of bows at the end, Patrick Jones as painter Oliver Kilbourn (seen center, above), and Paul Whitworth as instructor Robert Lyon (following photo), are meant to be the stars. But the entire cast stands out. Jackson Davis as Jimmy, Dan Hiatt as Harry, and especially James Carpenter as George Brown, help us understand how provincial are these men's lives before they learn to paint. Nicholas Pelczar plays two roles, one as a miner and one as a successful painter; Kathryn Zdan is a model whose nude posing practically throws the miners into apoplexy, and Marcia Pizzo's art patron Helen Sutherland shows us, through her would-be relationship with Oliver, how important decisions can change our lives.
The critique with "The Pitmen Painters," is interestingly enough the same critique that Helen gives Oliver in Act Two, about his development as a painter: the work does not dig very deep. There is little passion. Or anger. Or any hint at what would make these men desire to paint in the first place.
Where are the women in the art? Were these men monks? Was it simple lack of technique that never gives us closeups of their faces? If we are to believe Oliver in his turning down of Helen's offer, shouldn't we at least understand what is the great value he puts on remaining in the grubby and dangerous colliery?
RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Pitmen Painters" Three Stars. We enjoyed how Andrea Bechert's set and Steven B. Mannshardt's lights allowed us to actually view the paintings being discussed in the action below. (From the rear of the house, however, these illustrations were not always easy to make out.) The universal struggle of the working man has its fascinating parallel with the downtrodden role of the artist in society. This has been true through the ages. It is a worthwhile and intriguing discussion.
"The Pitmen Painters"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Feb. 12, 2012
Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin