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Review: 'The Pitmen Painters' digs into weighty subjects with a light touch

Derrick Phillips, left, Ally Farzetta and Gavin Hawk star in American Stage’s production of The Pitmen Painters. 
Photo by Joey Clay.
Derrick Phillips, left, Ally Farzetta and Gavin Hawk star in American Stage’s production of The Pitmen Painters. 
Photo by Joey Clay.
Published Jul. 25, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — It isn't often someone even tries to accomplish what Lee Hall has done in writing The Pitmen Painters, a discussion of a serious subject — in this case art — built into a storyline people are meant to watch and enjoy.

The show, with which American Stage closes its season, is therefore an ambitious undertaking. Five men take a course in art appreciation in the 1930s. That is the premise.

Here's the rest: Three of the men are coal miners (another is unemployed, another is a Marxist "dental mechanic"). They are trying to broaden their horizons by taking advantage of a program by the government sponsored Workers Educational Association, showing up after 10-hour days in the mines. Their hitherto undiscovered talent will blossom, turning them into a sensations of the art world in the 1940s.

The story is essentially true. Playwright Lee Hall learned of the miners after purchasing a secondhand book by William Feaver about the Ashington Group, named after the mining town in Northern England where the men took the first steps to becoming artists. Hall also wrote a musical about a coal miner's son who wants to become a ballet dancer, Billy Elliott. This play captures the same class struggles and divided loyalties that gave the musical its bone marrow. But it also tries to go deeper, to cram so much argument into two acts that even many of its characters blur dangerously together. The fact that it even comes close to achieving its aims is remarkable.

This production, directed by Brendon Fox, has spread its resources wisely, starting with Gregg Weiner playing Oliver Kilbourn. Local audiences last saw Weiner playing abstract artist Mark Rothko in Red, but similarities end there. As the most dedicated and talented miner, Oliver stands at the center of the conflict.

Out of the miners' mouths and through their stories, questions rush out, one on top of the other: What is art, and who decides its meaning? Who "owns" a piece of art, either literally (a strong socialist theme challenges the idea of individual ownership) or culturally? If art has been the province of the elite, isn't that just an accident of fortune, and how can that be changed?

It sounds pedagogical, but it's actually not. The humor in this play runs through a majority of scenes, mirroring the intellectual growth of the artists themselves. Under the tutelage of adjunct college professor Robert Lyon (played with a sympathetic exuberance by Gavin Hawk), the men analyze each other's work. They stare at blank canvasses, the starting point of all endeavors, while the work of the real pitmen painters is projected onto screens behind them.

"Did you mean it to look like a horse's leg?" asks the miner Jimmy (played with a comical touch by Derrick Phillips), pointing to Oliver's painting, which emphasizes the arc of the miner's back muscles as he works.

"But look how well it conveys the bulk, the sheer brute force of the miner at the coal face," Lyon says. It's one early example of the awakenings that pepper the script, start to finish.

The conflict gets worse with success, and reveals the truth conveyed so starkly in British society, that the biggest enforcers of class are often members of the underclass themselves. As Oliver tells a wealthy patron, Helen Sutherland, who wants to subsidize his work full time, "How can I just cut meself off from everybody? I've known these blokes all me life, miss."

Denise Cormier drives the play's most painful conflict home in her tension with Oliver, which borders on the romantic. The show is well acted, and enhanced by Phillip Franck's lighting design, the spare scenic design by Scott Cooper and Adrin Puente's period costumes. It's a tradeoff Lee has made that in creating so much discussion about meaning and class throughout, he has left room for only one fully drawn character. But you would have to really hate thoughtful questions about self-expression and who regulates it not to enjoy this play or and its many laugh-out-loud moments.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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