Steve Earle (right) and the company of ‘Coal Country.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Matthew Wexler
New York theater rarely provides a platform for the stories of Appalachia. Our blue state bubble and the mostly blue-collar lives of those portrayed in Coal Country may seem like an unlikely pair. But Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s documentary play, featuring music by Grammy Award-winning Steve Earle, proves that great storytelling need never be bound by borders.
April 5 will mark the 12th anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, a coal dust explosion that killed 29 miners and exposed layers of greed and corruption, resulting in multiple charges being filed against then CEO Don Blankenship.
Like the financial gluttony displayed onstage in the recent Broadway production of The Lehman Trilogy, this bone-chilling exposé will infuriate anyone with an aligned moral compass. But it is the humanity of the survivors of Raleigh County, portrayed with nuance and vulnerability by a cast of 11, that brings theatricality to the inevitable outcome.
Earle frames the narrative through guitar and banjo (those in the know will recognize West Virginian bluegrass musician Hazel Dickens in the recorded pre-show music), underscoring character sketches of surviving children, siblings, spouses and parents. We get a chilling slice of life of what survival looks like in these parts. Roosevelt (Extra Knight) says his father was a college graduate then taught high school history before heading underground for a mining union job (“I guess teacher wasn’t paying.”)
But whatever miners earned didn’t compare to the company takeaway. “Down and back. With a hundred-ton machine. And they done that day in and day out,” says Gary (Thomas Kopache), an old-school union guy. “That shear run seven days a week. There’s a lot of money there. There’s a lot of money there to get.”
The mine was eventually sold to Massey Energy. The union dismantled along with regular safety protocols, leading to dozens of citations over the years and, ultimately, a deadly blast that twisted bodies and heavy equipment into unrecognizable forms.
Amid such unspeakable grief, Blank and Jensen carve intimate family portrayals that could mirror any of our lives, regardless of geographic location. Patti (Mary Bacon) recalls her short-lived marriage; Judy (Deirdre Madigan) speaks the unspeakable when she chooses to identify her brother’s body after the blast; husband and wife Stanley “Goose” (Carl Palmer) and Mindi (Amelia Campbell) bicker and banter, ultimately documenting management’s questionable business practices, which serves as evidence when the case goes to trial.
Richard Hoover’s wood-slat scenic design faintly echoes the narrative musical, Come From Away, further uptown, yet serves this story equally well when cast with David Lander’s mood-shifting lighting. But the words are the real star here. Confessionals of compassion and fury ring similarly true.
Judy, in a moment of painful lucidity, says what audience, actor and survivor knew all along:
When all was said and done and all the investigations and the trials were finished, it had nothing to do with some kind of complicated, difficult to understand, chain of events … they’re making six hundred thousand dollars a day. And if they shut down for safety, that cuts into that six hundred thousand dollars a day. And we’re all complicit because the lights must stay on, right? It is a war, and these coal miners are victims of the war.
War is in the pit of our stomachs these days as we watch democracy hang in the balance. Coal Country doesn’t make false promises about those in power being held accountable. But it does provide a compelling opportunity to pass through the window frame into another way of life and bear witness to the resilience of the human spirit.
Audible and The Public Theater at the Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through April 17
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.