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The Pitmen Painters
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2011-09-21

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Playwright: Lee Hall

At: Timeline Theatre at Baird Hall in the United Church of Christ, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Phone: 773-975-8150;$32-$42. Runs through: Dec. 4

Art was once a consumer product manufactured for the privileged, reflecting their world view (consider Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals"). The waning of autocracies during recent centuries ushered in commoners as romanticized heroes of fiction, but not until government grants replaced private patrons as the financiers of culture do we see a proliferation of sermons on the value of the arts as a means of improving the quality of life for all segments of the population.

Lee Hall's play recounts the progress of a coal miners' fraternal organization in 1934, whose members, despite toiling 10 hours a day, are determined to improve the quality of their lives. To this end, the Worker's Educational Association has hired a teacher to school them in Art Appreciation. The young tyro assigned the task quickly abandons his slide-lecture on classical theory, instead instructing his pupils to make their own art, their depictions of life as they know it providing material for analysis according to the aesthetic principles he is equipped to impart. None of them anticipate a wealthy London collector expressing an interest in their efforts—attention leading to an exhibition of what is now dubbed the "Ashington Group."

If this was a homily on the flowering of hitherto-undetected talent, the play would conclude with the miners basking in their new-found fame and presumably living happily ever after. That's not the story that Hall wants to tell, however, and so we continue on as the humble working men (women, too, represented by the waitress who moonlights as a life model) confront the mixed opportunities offered by their sudden notoriety: shall they flee the economic hardships of their labor—and with it, the community engendered by their heritage—for the liberation of painting full-time at the whim of fickle patrons? Art can lift a person up from—or, this case, out of—the ground, but then where do they go?

These are a lot of weighty ideas to put into the mouths of provincial rustics (did I mention the discussions of art's operative process and social dynamic?) but director B.J. Jones has assembled a cast of actors capable of projecting individualized conviction—whether that of sturdy Geordie colliers or effete city-dwellers—to forge unforgettable characters of depth far greater than the facile stereotypes of sentimental allegories.


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