After the world-premiere production of Coal Country, which opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater on March 3, 2020, was unexpectedly cut short by the closure of theaters necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the show was recorded and released as an Audible Original audio-play in September 2021. Audible has now brought the critically acclaimed work back to the stage at the Cherry Lane Theatre for a strictly limited six-week engagement that reunites the original cast and team, with an opening night that coincides with the two-year anniversary of its shutdown at The Public. Audiences should be grateful to Audible for making it available again; it’s a momentous work that should not be missed.
Written by Drama Desk Award winners Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (in their signature style of The Exonerated), with original music composed and performed by three-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and musician Steve Earle, the masterful docudrama examines the shocking story of the deadliest mining disaster in recent US history – the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, which killed 29 men and had devastating repercussions for countless others – through the verbatim first-person accounts of family members and survivors. Directed with understatement and compassion by Blank and delivered by a profoundly affecting cast, the heartrending emotion of their personal testimonies is enhanced by the moving and eloquent interspersed songs of Earle, who remains on stage throughout the performance and perfectly captures the country/folk style, feelings, and message of the real-life people and the tragedy that could have, and should have, been prevented.
Framed in the device of the court case that was brought against the greedy and intentionally negligent Don Blankenship (Chairman and CEO of the Massey Energy Company, which owned the mine) for willfully conspiring to violate safety and health standards (a mere misdemeanor that resulted in an infuriating slap-on-the-wrist sentence), the play with music is presented in the format of rotating direct-address monologues by those witnesses who were not permitted to give their Victim Impact Statements during the trial, on the grounds that they were not victims (their lost loved ones were). Fortunately for the audience, the superb cast is much more believable and empathetic than the failed justice system, with each and every one delivering a poignant and compelling characterization (with apropos accents), consummately expressing the pain they continue to endure, and leaving not a dry eye in the house (mine are still running as I write this).
The stellar ensemble features Carl Palmer as Goose, Thomas Kopache as Gary, and Michael Laurence as Tommy (all surviving veteran miners from generations of coal-mining families); Ezra Knight as Roosevelt, who worked outside the mine while his revered father worked deep inside; Amelia Campbell as Goose’s concerned and devoted wife Mindi; Mary Bacon as the single mother Patti, who was engaged to a single-father miner; and Deirdre Madigan as Judy, a doctor now treated as an outsider, though a native coal-miner’s daughter with a brother who followed in their father’s footsteps. Their stirring and sensitive portrayals openly and honestly reveal their characters’ heartbreak and anger, along with their resolve in giving voice, seeking justice, and paying tribute to those they lost (joining together for a paean to the 29 working-class people who were needlessly and heedlessly killed, in a round vocalizing the name of each).
Every gut-wrenching performance is a standout, as they candidly disclose their backstories, the process, exhaustion, and dangers inherent in mining, and the panic and horror they experienced on the day of the explosion and during the long wait to identify the missing and their bodies (Madigan’s stunned and sorrowful description of the remains of Judy’s brother is especially harrowing). They also expose their knowledge of the union-busting, unsafe practices, and pressure placed on them by the leaders of Massey to remain silent or to risk losing their much-needed jobs and income, and their outrage at the results of the trial (with the unmoved Judge played by Kym Gomes), which favored money over life, in a searing indictment of our economically motivated socio-political system.
The artistic team has created an equally restrained but expressive design. Richard Hoover’s minimal set shows the exploded wooden wall of the mine, with lighting by David Lander that glows orange from behind. Jessica Jahn’s costumes define the blue-collar characters in simple jeans, work boots, and sneakers, which contrast with the more refined clothing of Judy. Sound by Darron L West and movement direction by Adesola Osakalumi also contribute effectively to the subtle impact of this top-notch production, which I recommend most highly and without reservation.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
Coal Country plays through Sunday, April 17, 2022, at Audible Theater, performing at Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $39-77), call (212) 989-2020, or go online. All patrons must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a valid photo ID to enter the building and must wear an acceptable face mask at all times when inside.