Review of Coal Country at the Public Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    March 3, 2020
    Review by:

    Twenty-nine small lights hang above the Public Theater’s Anspacher stage, one for each victim of the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. The absence of these sons, fathers and brothers brought heartbreak to the town of Montcoal, West Virginia and that grief is palpable in the beautifully rendered, impeccably cast production of Coal Country, a documentary-style chronicle of the worst U.S. mine explosion in 50 years, and its aftermath, made up primarily of interviews from family members as well as from men who made it through the blast, only to find injustice when it came to punishing those responsible.

    The husband and wife writing team of Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, best known for The Exonerated, their play about wrongly convicted death row inmates, traveled to West Virginia in 2016 to conduct the in-depth interviews that would be edited down and interwoven to create this work, showcasing the powerful theatricality of a true story told simply. Four men and three women, each balancing their sorrow with their grit, take turns relaying the specifics of the incident, the ignored warnings, and the litigious aftermath that found the mining company’s chief executive receiving a slap on the wrist sentence. The tale is at times as elemental as fire and air, and as all-consuming as the explosion itself. The design team adds to the mood, filling the theater with a light mist, a reminder of the coal dust the workers breathed in on a daily basis.

    Jensen and Blank are concerned with union politics almost as much as they are with the humanity of this tight community. But none of their interviews were especially concerned with religion, one way or the other. There is nothing to suggest their subjects are not God-fearing, but church is not what the authors are here to preach. Nonetheless, to fill that spiritual gap, the work is sewn through with soulful folk music, written and performed by the magnificent Steve Earle, who haunts the stage like a scraggly bearded sage (“The good lord gimme 2 hands/Says is you an animal or is you a man?”). 

    Directed with a big heart and a keen eye by Ms. Blank, the stellar ensemble includes Michael Gaston as the hard-working Goose, and Amelia Campbell as his wife, Mindi. Demonstrating the joys of verbatim dialog, she describes her life-changing love for Goose, “Everything was just half a click off, and when I saw him, it all fell into place.” Michael Laurence is both touching and a hoot as the slightly redneck, slightly foul-mouthed Tommy while Thomas Kopache, as Gary, extolls the wisdom that comes with a life spent in the mines. Mary Bacon is the sympathetic Patti who likely would have lost her husband to black lung disease had he survived the tragedy. Ezra Knight plays Roosevelt, a proud son left fatherless and Deirdre Madigan adeptly handles the tricky role of Judy, a successful doctor who loses her brother. Though bonded to her hometown by loss she nonetheless experiences the outsider status that comes with her wealth and success. Rounding out the company, Melinda Tanner is stoic as the court judge tasked with announcing a verdict that no one wants to hear and no one is willing to forget.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "At the very beginning of the new play Coal Country, we are told it is “a West Virginia story about 29 men and a big machine.” This is an understated way to inform the audience that what follows will be devastating."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Times

    "Under Blank’s restrained direction, the performances are gorgeously authentic and underplayed. (Michael Gaston is a standout.) Even though you know what’s coming—the catastrophe was covered extensively in the media—the play’s intensely personal and detailed recollections of the disaster and its aftershocks are deeply affecting. It’s not just that people died that day because of corporate greed. It’s that their way of life is dying, too, and no one is coming to save them."
    Raven Snook for Time Out New York

    "Blank directs a book that has eight actors telling us true stories about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010. Not even the trial where the surviving workers sued the mining company is dramatized. “Let me tell you” is repeated so often that you will want to scream back, “No, don’t tell me!” That’s the other thing about “Coal Country.” The actors never stop screaming or yelling or crying or stomping their feet or slamming benches against the stage floor for dramatic effect. They’re really steamed up, because they love their land and the land loved them back until that darned greedy capitalist named Mr. Blankenship came along and didn’t pay them much for spewing even more fossil fuel into the atmosphere."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "Documentary-theater specialists Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, best known for their powerful first-person narrative account of wrongful death-penalty convictions, The Exonerated, craft another profoundly stirring verbatim drama in Coal Country, world-premiering at The Public Theater. Shaped out of the words of survivors and family members of victims of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 men, this is a wrenching portrait of working-class American lives torn asunder and corporate greed given a rap on the knuckles in a sadly familiar travesty of justice."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter