A superb group of first-rate actors directed with perceptive intelligence creates a stimulating experience in Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s production of The Pitmen Painters. Lee Hall wrote it. He’s the author of the screenplay for the movie Billy Elliot as well as of the book and lyrics for the musical version. Here he again explores the idea that working class people can be meaningful artists.
This play from 2007 focuses on real-life coal miners and a dental mechanic (a maker of dentures and such like) from Northern England, who, starting in 1934, wanted to know more about art. They ended up learning how to create it and, over the course of the next decades, were acclaimed for their paintings. Hall tenderly, sympathetically portrays these men, giving their tentative first steps much humor and charm. He also makes it clear that this is no narrative viewed with rose-colored glasses.
Hall uses their story as a framework for trenchant observations about what validates art and what art does for society as well as for the people who create it. His script is full of well-written stimulating talk, especially as the men become more knowledgeable. However, almost from the start, these characters come up with well-phrased insights of dubious authenticity. Certainly Hall needs that to get across his points; the real men probably didn’t actually speak that well, given their origins.
He doesn’t spend enough time on the men’s backgrounds, barely touching on lives loaded with perils to health and limbs, working underground to fuel an economy which benefits them little. Instead they are mostly seen gathering to share and discuss their new-found hobby. Since these are people who emerged into a brighter world and whose accomplishments could come across as startling and inspiring, you’d think Hall would try to evoke empathy and admiration about that part of their lives. You can infer such, of course, but it’s likely that you’ll stay on the surface, never getting much chance to go deeper into whom these people really were.
Wonderfully enhancing the story, the audience sees many projections of their paintings.
The acting certainly makes whatever happens believable, given how director Andrew S. Paul especially evokes the sense of ensemble from Simon Bradbury, Daryll Heysham, Alan Stanford, Larry John Myers and Bernard Balbot as working class/ classroom mates.
Canada’s Bradbury, often seen in PICT performances, especially stands out with depth and appealing sensitivity as Oliver Kilbourn, the group’s most promising person. He’s written as the most complicated and conflicted with many questions about the nature of art, about himself and about the radical changes in their lives.
Robert Lyon was the art historian who came to teach the men and Brad Heberlee plays him with intelligent, solid definition, thoroughly filling out the details about Lyon’s openness to seeing things himself from new perspectives, ready to do all he can to lead the group into self-respect and into discovering their feelings moved by art. And Hall has sometimes written their reactions to great art so well, that, in these fine performances, those strong feelings reach across the boundaries of the stage to touch us, for example when these laborer/painters find kinship with Van Gogh.
Some words and speeches don’t come across clearly, given the thick regional accents. Credit the cast with the talent and skill to seem like people from another culture, but you may have, as I had, a fervent wish to better grasp all of the meaning since so much of what Hall has written seems worth understanding. Yet, you will never be in the dark, out there beyond the stage lights, about what has happened or how or why; Hall illuminates that and shows us what can happen when we immerse ourselves in the brilliance of canvases which stir us, telling us more about life than words can alone.
The Pitmen Painters continues through June 23 in the Henry Heymann Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412/ 394-3353 and www.picttheatre.org,