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Coal Country

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 3, 2020

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
They used to bring caged canaries into coal mines to serve as early warning signs of a dangerous buildup of methane gas. A discomfiting tradeoff to be sure: protecting human lives at the expense of dead canaries. But what happens when it is the miners themselves who become those caged and trapped birds? That was the case a decade ago, when a horrific mine explosion in West Virginia left 29 dead and ripped apart the lives of surviving families, friends and neighbors. It is their stories that are being recounted in the harrowing docudrama Coal Country, opening tonight at the Public Theater.

Eschewing the emotionally manipulative approach that too often accompanies plays based of factual events, Coal Country is all the stronger for allowing straight-talking authenticity to carry the load. The dialog is drawn directly from transcripts of court records and face-to-face interviews conducted by co-playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. The pair had previously taken a similar approach with their acclaimed The Exonerated, which recounted the stories of wrongfully convicted inmates. That process works here as well, thanks largely to a splendid cast who fully embody the characters, the appropriately unfussy direction by Ms. Blank, and the complementary infusion of original music written and performed by singer-songwriter and multiple Grammy Award winner Steve Earle.

The 90-minute play, performed without an intermission, begins in a courtroom, where the CEO of the mining company has been found guilty of conspiring to violate health and safety standards. The gathered members of the community are expecting to make impact statements prior to sentencing, but a legal technicality blocks them from speaking. Coal Country, then, is the forum through which their voices are finally allowed to be heard. And we are there to listen in fellowship to their disquieting recollections.

Steve Earle
Photo by Joan Marcus
If you do listen carefully, you will learn a great deal about coal mining and the circumstances leading up to the explosion. More significantly, however, you will come to understand and respect these rural West Virginians, about whom typical New York theatergoers know very little beyond stereotypic and none-too-flattering notions about Appalachia. Their pain is very real and permanent. But they also speak with a great sense of pride about generations of brothers, husbands, fathers and sons who worked and made a decent living from coal mining, and of the union that protected them until unabashed greed drove men like Don Blankenship, the convicted CEO, to push the workers to the limits of safety and, sadly, beyond. The performances all around are profoundly moving, as is the cumulative impact of the personal stories they relate.

While the splendid cast members fully commit to being the conduits for the real-life characters they portray, as well as to their work as a tight-knit ensemble, I would be remiss if I neglected to name them. They are Melinda Tanner, Thomas Kopache, Michael Laurence, Michael Gaston, Amelia Campbell, Mary Bacon, Ezra Knight, and Deirdre Madigan.

Having Steve Earle on hand as musician is decidedly a bonus. While the songs he performs do not speak directly to the content of the play, they serve well in bringing out a strong sense of the community and, especially, of their deep roots in the region. The tunes are infused with the time-honored sounds of folk music, hymns, and songs of labor union solidarity (the audience is encouraged to join in on one of them) that hearken back to the days of Woody Guthrie. Apart from the pleasure of watching him perform, Earle provides a fitting backdrop to this original and compelling work.

Coal Country
Through April 5, 2020
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: