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BWW Review: Powerfully Plainspoken COAL COUNTRY Speaks The Truths of Mining Disaster Victims

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's docu-play features songs by Steve Earle.

It seems every four years, as political primaries come upon us, Americans start thinking more seriously about those far off people in drastically different communities we share this country with. If New Yorkers have had many thoughts about the coal industry recently, they probably had to do with President Trump's vocal support of it in the face of cleaner options.

BWW Review: Powerfully Plainspoken COAL COUNTRY Speaks The Truths of Mining Disaster Victims
Steve Earle and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

So when the characters of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen COAL COUNTRY, the beautiful and tragic theatrical collage that just opened at The Public, tell their stories of living in a town where most everyone's life revolves around employment at a West Virginia coal mine, they seem like personal conversations with people who live in a much different America from the one populated by typical Off-Broadway theatregoers. Especially if you're placed up close in the three-sided seating of the intimate Anspacher Theater.

Blank (who also directs) and Jensen are the pair who created THE EXONERATED, that heart-gripping collection of monologues taken from the words of people who served a sickening amount of time on death row for murders that evidence eventually proved they didn't commit. But while THE EXONERATED was performed in New York by plain-clothed actors sitting in chairs and reading scripts, the characters of COAL COUNTRY are fully portrayed by an exceptional ensemble.

"The devil put the coal in the ground / Said I double dog dare ya to follow me down," sings a guitar-wielding host played by Grammy-winning country rock/folk artist Steve Earle, who opens the show with his version of the John Henry legend and provides musical interludes of his own creation to embellish the drama.

A gavel is pounded and Judge Irene Berger (Melinda Tanner) declares the conviction of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, whose willful violations of mandatory mine health and safety standards led to an explosion that, in 2010, killed 29 men working at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia.

But because the defendant wasn't directly charged with the explosion, there were, in a legal sense, no victims of his actions, and the survivors who came to court ready to read victim impact statements were denied that right.

BWW Review: Powerfully Plainspoken COAL COUNTRY Speaks The Truths of Mining Disaster Victims
Ezra Knight, Michael Laurence, Thomas Kopache
and Michael Gaston (Photo: Joan Marcus)

So COAL COUNTRY, taken from their words, is a chance to be heard for these men, whose faces and bodies show the weary effects of risking death every day to put supper on the table, and the women whose open-hearted love for them mask the daily anguish of never being sure if they'll arrive home safely at the end of their shifts. Though they do interact with one another, there are rarely scenes played out. Primarily, their stories are told directly to us and the effect is quietly devastating.

The father figure of the group is Gary Quarles, the son and grandson of coal miner who himself has spent 34 years at the job. And old-school union man who has seen his share of abuses and victories, he's played by Thomas Kopache with the kind of sparkplug dignity that makes you think he was quite a firebrand in his younger days.

Working in the mines is also a family occupation for lanky and tattooed Tommy Davis (Michael Laurence), who was working at Upper Big Branch with his son, his brother and two nephews when the disaster occurred.

Big, burly Stanley "Goose" Stewart (Michael Gaston) and his petite wife Mindi (Amelia Campbell) make an adorable couple as they humorously tell of their fast-moving courtship. When Goose starts noticing little lapses in workplace safety, Mindi insists he take detailed notes of everything.

More wistfully romantic is the story of Patti Stover (Mary Bacon), a single mom who, for twenty-two years, had little contact with her neighbor Greg, a miner and single dad, before he suddenly asked her out and eventually proposed.

When Roosevelt Stover, Jr. (Ezra Knight), the only person of color in the company, was born, his father left his job as a high school history teacher for a more lucrative position in the mines. Once again, son follows in dad's footsteps.

The outlier of the group is Judy Jones Petersen (Deirdre Madigan), a coal miner's daughter with a younger brother in the mines who fled town and became a doctor. Through her eyes we get an insider's view of the horrific bodily harm the explosion caused.

And through the combination of stories and testimonies, we get a portrait of the working conditions endured (unpredictable temperature extremes, pitch darkness, handling heavy machinery, questionable safety measures) and eyewitness descriptions of the explosion's aftermath, from both those in the vicinity and those who rushed to the scene to find out the fates of their loved ones.

Politics is never discussed, nor are cleaner energy source options, but COAL COUNTRY, through its plainspoken truth and focus on local community issues is powerful political theatre.

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