Anyone who has ever struggled to understand what makes up the artist's soul, either their own or someone close to them, will find some solace in the spirit of discovery outlining The Pitmen Painters, running now through July 8 at Mad Cow Theatre's Stage Right. Written by Tony-winning Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall, Mad Cow's production is an intimate look at what art is, what it means, what it can do for the world and what it means in the lives of those who allow themselves to experience it.
The play chronicles the true story of a group of coal miners from Ashington, England, who take an art-appreciation-turned-painting class and become an international sensation before the second World War. From the get-go, themes of class inequality and politics surface. The five Mad Cow actors who portray the Ashington Group perfectly, yet understatedly, illustrate the miners' lack of education in the way they nail the lowbrow Northern England accents – the contrast is particularly notable in their attempts to communicate with their posh new teacher, Robert Lyon, played with exacting precision by Tommy Keesling.
After a few slides projected on the wall of paintings by Da Vinci and Botticelli, the group is beyond confused, and a tense discussion of what is – and how to pronounce – "the Renaissance" follows. Instead of trying to decipher art seemingly so far removed from everyday life, Lyon decides that the best way for these men to understand it is to actually do it themselves. Most of the resulting paintings are stark depictions of the struggles that accompany life in Ashington's mine pits. Stephen Ricker (scenic design) and Erin Miner (lighting) made the decision to display the paintings on an easel on the set and also project them on the opposite wall, so the audience can make out the details. It's helpful, but the performances are so engaging that it felt like a chore to pull my eyes away from the live art to study the still.
Robert Lyon's stroke of brilliance in diverting the miners from the abstract (art history lectures) to concrete (painting instruction) sets off a chain reaction of discussions of the nature of art, what it means to be an artist and the realities of class distinction, as evidenced by the interactions between the moneyed characters and the poor ones. Mark Lainer's Oliver, the lifetime pitman and arguably the most talented of the lads, convincingly aches over his decision to leave the mines and follow the patronage of rich connoisseur Helen Sutherland, played by Amanda Schlachter. Hall's dialogue is rippling and musical, delivered by an ensemble that makes it sing (in addition to Lainer, praise is due to miners John Bateman, Trevin Cooper, Glen Gover and Mark Edward Smith).
As directed by Bobbie Bell (who recently starred in Mad Cow's Dancing at Lughnasa), Hall's play is more than "Billy Elliot with a paintbrush"; it's inspiring and reflective, a must-see for anyone who has ever wondered why people go ga-ga over the kind of painting that looks elementary. It's a relevant play that examines the importance of arming the masses with the means to create, especially in a recession, and reminds us that art isn't just for the educated, but especially for the disenfranchised.
If all art is supposed to make you think, Mad Cow's production qualifies as such, teaching us, as the Ashington miners concluded, that "you can't just look at the world; you've got to change it."
The Pitmen Painters
through July 8
Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.