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Review Roundup: COAL COUNTRY at the Public - What Did the Critics Think?

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Review Roundup: COAL COUNTRY at the Public - What Did the Critics Think?

COAL COUNTRY will run at The Public Theater through Sunday, March 29. COAL COUNTRY is written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen with original music by Steve Earle and direction by Jessica Blank.

The complete cast of COAL COUNTRY features Mary Bacon (Patti), Amelia Campbell (Mindi), Michael Gaston (Goose), Ezra Knight (Roosevelt), Thomas Kopache (Gary), Michael Laurence (Tommy), Deirdre Madigan (Judy), and Melinda Tanner (Judge Berger). Steve Earle joins the cast onstage to perform his original music.

In 2010, the Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed 29 men, and tore a hole in the lives of countless others. In this riveting, emotionally stunning new work based on first-person accounts by survivors and family members, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, award-winning writers of The Exonerated, and three-time Grammy Award-winning country/folk legend Steve Earle dig deep into the lives and loss of the most deadly mining disaster in recent U.S. history. Jessica Blank directs this haunting world premiere that gives voice to those yet unheard and shines a piercing light on the deadly forces of greed and the enduring power of love.

Let's see what the critics are saying...


Elisabeth Vincentelli, The New York Times: Earle's songs (which will appear on his new album, "Ghosts of West Virginia," due in May) are interspersed through the show at regular intervals. He performs them sitting on a stool, hunched over an old-fashioned microphone; the actors often join in. The spare numbers do not pretend to offer insights into the characters or move the story along: This is not a musical. Rather, they underline the show's themes of community and transmission, contributing one more chapter in what feels like an ongoing oral history.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: The music eloquently expands the scope of the drama beyond one single tragedy to illustrate the quieter losses of blue-collar livelihoods that have transitioned over generations from man to machine, and from the extended-family solidarity of "Union, God & Country," to quote one song title, to nonunion exploitation, with human rights devalued by the primacy of productivity. The balladeer-style presence of Earle onstage, mostly seated to one side of the performers though at times interacting with a nod of his head or an assenting word, deepens the feel of the play as an affecting slice of classic Americana.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: 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.

Stanford Friedman, New York Theatre Guide: 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.

David Finkle, New York Stage Review: Now and undoubtedly not by chance just about exactly 10 years on from the tragic date, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen-who prompted a significant stir with their stage documentary The Exonerated-have done it again with Coal Country. Working apparently on commission for The Public Theater since 2016, they've sewn together a shocking, touching West Virginia quilt of blithe corporate corruption. The result is yet another example of class divisiveness that, were they to see it, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would be coaxing constituents to attend with fists ready to raise in solidarity.

Jeremy Gerard, Theater News Online: The outcome of the trial will come as no surprise if you know your Woody Guthrie or, for that matter, your Steve Earle. Coal Country left me at once elated and sad, as folk songs will do, moved by its simplicity and unself-conscious directness. These things happened. These words were spoken. These were the consequences. It's a tapestry of grief, and it's a beauty.

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: Coal Country is only 90 minutes, but it is incredibly powerful. Blank and Jensen are not just excellent interviewers, they are excellent writers and distillers of material. The stories run in parallel with each other, and so we see how the prelude to disaster takes shape both below the ground and also above-and the strange things that stick in the characters' minds, like a gas station with no queue suddenly having one.

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