A curious alchemy occurs at the end of The Burnt Part Boys, the musical play winding up its run at Freefall Theatre this weekend. • For about 90 minutes we have followed the journeys of five live characters and four dead ones. Truth be told, one or two comic scenes seemed rather silly and beside the point. But now the characters find themselves together in a dark and deathly place. The ghosts of the fathers speak directly to their teenage children. • The emotional insights of that moment transcend the theatrical conceit, and a wave of love, purpose and peace washes over the audience.
This play is a classic coming-of-age ritual if ever there was one. Credit the skill of all nine actors, and that of director Eric Davis and his ingenious design team, for bringing us fully along.
Set in a remote coal-mining town in West Virginia, The Burnt Part Boys begins with an explosion, which we soon learn is a mining accident that has killed most of the fathers in the town. Ten years later, in 1962, four of the children bear the loss in different ways.
Chet and Jake, the oldest, are best friends who have become apprentice miners themselves. Chet, played with cheerful insouciance by Nick Fitzer, has buried his grief. Jake (Nick Lerew) is similarly committed to putting the tragedy behind them. But he also carries a heavy burden of responsibility and resentment over the seeming trap of his life. After all, he became the man of the house when he was only 8. In Disappear, he sings that he already feels like a 40-year-old man. His body language and facial expressions confirm it.
Jake's younger brother Pete (Cameron Kubly) is the dreamy one, obsessed by the pop culture male fantasies of his era: action heroes like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston in John Wayne's The Alamo. When Pete learns that the mining company will reopen that part of the mine that still contains the fathers' remains (The Burnt Part), he steals some dynamite and sets off to seal the mine for good. To his older brother, the mine is a place to earn a living; to Pete it must remain a shrine.
Pete enlists his nerdy best friend, Dusty (Joseph Flynn), to join him. Along the way they find Frances (Katie Berger), another fatherless teenager. The three climb through forests, over rocks, across fast-flowing streams and up the mountain, with Jake and Chet in pursuit, determined to stop them.
The symbolism of this quest could not be more obvious, but the set designed by Matt Davis makes it impressively real. Ladders, chairs, boxes, pieces of the stage that can be lifted and lowered, and two wooden jungle gyms at each end of the stage — all can be obstacles crossed and climbed through. You might not think such a stage could credibly portray two teenagers paddling a real canoe through the rapids, but it can. Mike Woods' lighting completes the effect.
Meanwhile, the four dead miners appear from time to time, singing about their work and their plight, while using their gloved hands to move and manipulate the props. That's a rich combination of action and symbolism too.
The music may be the weakest part of the show. Organized around simple Appalachian chords and melodies, it can sound repetitious. On the other hand, in several ensemble pieces, with four or even nine actors weaving their voices in separate directions around the tune, it becomes intoxicating.
The music, however, is not the point of the show. Like the sets and all that ritual walking, it is just one more contribution to that impressive moment of reckoning at the end.