(l-r) Ezra Knight, Carl
Palmer, Michael Laurence, and Thomas Kopache. (Joan Marcus)
By Fern Siegel
raw, evocative power of Coal Country rests in its simplicity. Seven
excellent cast members portray family members of those killed in a horrific UBB mining explosion in
Montcoal, West Virginia, in 2010.
wood stage setting is bare — the words paint vivid portraits of the death of 29
miners that could have been prevented — had Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship
put people before profits. Massey had been warned — repeatedly — that safety
standards were being violated and methane was building up against the longwall,
which houses the top-grade coal deep inside the mountain. Once methane is ignited, a
deadly fireball was inevitable.
Kopache) a decades-long mining veteran and union man makes clear, the tragedy
would never have happened had the union remained in charge. In those years, the
men were protected. Shifts were mandated. Safety was a byword.
Massey had opened a nonunion mine, and exploitation ran riot. Any man who noted
problems was summarily given a warning: Put up or shut up. Speaking out meant a
job loss — and in Montcoal, the mines were the only real employment option.
miners were trapped — above and below ground.
Blankenship’s greed and personal bonus expanded, so did the dangers. And as
each actor tells another victim’s story, we are reminded of the human cost of
stories are specific to the teller, but the group functions almost as a Greek
chorus under Jessica Blank’s direction, delivering a poignant, moving elegy of
preventable loss. The drama is accompanied by three-time Grammy winner Steve
Earle’s original music, which is pitch-perfect: mournful at one moment, filled
with country swagger the next. His rousing “Union, God and Country” song sums
up the miner’s motto.
Carl Palmer, Mary Bacon, Ezra Knight, Thomas Kopache, Deirdre Madigan, Amelia
Campbell, Michael Laurence (Joan Marcus)
at the cozy Cherry Lane Theater, Blank and Erik Jensen’s documentary-style
theater piece gives voice to the often voiceless. Coal Country reveals
the class struggle in America and the high price workers pay to sate corporate
gives each victim’s family member a chance to speak. And the stories are
heartbreaking. Patti (Mary Bacon) recalls her boyfriend. Having endured tough
divorces, they decided to live together with their kids. Four happy years later,
they decided to wed. But as Patti notes, the pressure on the men got tougher,
and the sickness her partner endures from toxic chemicals got greater.
(Ezra Knight) says his dad, his hero, gave up teaching because the mines paid
better. He worked double shifts to support his family, but he always made time
to coach his son’s teams. Tommy (Michael Laurence) has a particularly gut-wrenching
saga. His family proudly produced generations of miners. He, his brother,
nephew and son are close. They all work at the UBB mine — and they know
conditions are lethal. They just don’t know where to get help or how else to
provide for their families. So when the explosion hits, Tommy confronts not one
loss, but a staggering three.
even within the tightknit West Virginia community, class divides emerge. Judy
(Deirdre Madigan), a city doctor, comes from a mining family. She is there to
speak for her deceased brother, who worked underground. Yet when the worst
happens, friends and neighbors suddenly view her as an outsider, compounding
her misery. Mindi (Amelia Campbell) and Goose (Carl Palmer), a sweet married
couple, round out the cast. Mindi represents what miners’ wives endure, never
knowing if their husbands will come home.
facts of the tragedy aren’t in dispute; the issue is who bears responsibility.
The victims’ families saw charges brought against Blankenship, but the result
is a travesty of justice — even in the community where he caused the most
misery. Incredibly, Blankenship had the gall to publish a book after the trial
blaming anyone but himself for the 29 deaths.
and Jensen, responsible for the play The
Exonerated, have created another stirring work with a first-rate ensemble.
The horror is palpable, and the show delivers an emotional punch that resonates
long after you leave the theater.
Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St.
minutes, no interruption