By Sarah Downs
What if your dreams of the future disappeared in a puff of smoke – literally. That is what happened to the people of Raleigh County, West Virginia in 2010, when the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, costing the lives of 29 men. The docuplay Coal Country follows the journey of surviving family members as they try to come to terms with their loss as they fight for their day in court.
The Upper Big Branch mine was the area’s lifeblood – generations of families went down the mine, lived in company housing, shopped at the company store. The explosion and betrayal by mineowner Massey Energy was therefore all the more devastating. The void created was not just a hole; it was a crater.
The actors are excellent, inhabiting their weary characters as comfortably as their hoodies and jeans. You feel the weight of their sadness and the fire of their anger. Goose (Carl Palmer) and Mindi (Amelia Campbell), the couple whose tender bond carries them; wistful, stoic Patti (Mary Bacon), and fiery, loose-limbed Tommy (Michael Laurence) who starts every day at a 10 and by breakfast is at least at a 15.
Ezra Knight intertwines anger and softness in his performance as Roosevelt Lynch. When he describes his father, a schoolteacher turned miner, we see the father’s image in the detail of Knight’s gesture. Unique among this group, Judy Petersen (Deirdre Madigan), left the holler behind to become a doctor. In her maternal warmth toward the others and composed her self-presentation, Madigan embodies the complexity of walking the path of insider/outsider. When Judy describes her brother, also a victim of the explosion, it’s like a punch in the stomach.
It is, however, Thomas Kopache as Gary who captured my attention from the first moment. He is so present, it’s as if he is addressing you individually. I felt every word. The oldest among them, and therefore the one who would have ‘seen it all’ when it comes to the dangers of working in a coal mine for a distant, heartless employer, Gary yet breathes the fire of a man facing his first injustice.
Framed within the echo of folk music written and performed by Steve Earle, the actors alternately pace the floor, sit in loneliness, or gather as one. Earle’s music resonates with authenticity. Sometimes plaintive, sometimes lilting, it is the voice of those not present. Similarly, the simple wood paneled set is both setting and dreamscape. Lining the floor and walls, extending up the back wall in a cyclorama, the rough-hewn planks evoke a rustic cabin. Yet the planks can also breathe fire, dramatically backlit to reveal jagged holes in the cyclorama, behind which lies… what? The mine? The safe rooms that were supposed to offer refuge to trapped miners? The intangible beyond?
In this meta-environment, the families perpetually search for something which lies always out of reach — their missing family members, retribution from the callous energy company that placed profit over safety, and that most unattainable of prizes — relief from the cruel randomness of death. The citizens of Coal Country pace internally as much as they do externally, trapped in a feedback loop of anger and grief. It is a compelling story, well told.
Coal Country, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, with original music by Steve Earle. Directed by Jessica Blank. With Mary Bacon, Amelia Campbell, Kym Gomes, Ezra Knight, Thomas Kopache, Michael Laurence, Deirdre Madigan and Carl Palmer. At select performances the music will be performed by Joe Jung.
At the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, NYC), March 10th – April 17th. Tickets and Schedule available at www.cherrylanetheatre.org. Running time is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
All attendees must show proof of vaccination and are also required to wear an acceptable face mask at all times. For more information, click here.