This is a story of what happens when an ill wind blows through a community, disrupting the lives of all it touches. It is a story of how a bountiful feast of natural resources is revealed as a curse to all who share in that feast. It is the story of Picher, Oklahoma, told through the laughter, tears, struggles, and achievements of determined, hard-working, dedicated people. It is a tragedy writ large that continues to this day.
The Picher Project is a bluegrass and folk-infused musical conceived and directed by Quentin Madia, with music, book, and lyrics by Madia and Lauren Pelaia. This show is based on real-life events that are not only a part of Oklahoma’s history but also of the social and industrial history of the United States. Through words and songs, the story is told of how this gentle, quiet, rural area became the center of lead and zinc mining in North America, only to end up dead as the number one most polluted place in the United States.
A show of this size with 20 performers and a band of five needs a much larger stage. It is a show that deserves such a presentation. The Picher Project is a terrific show regardless of the venue.
The play opens with a prologue done as a production number that starts slowly with Rebecca Jim, a young Native American woman, narrating the early history of Picher, from its Native American beginnings through its rapid growth starting in 1913 to a moment in 1983. As she gives the narration, the cast begins to appear, showing the things that were happening as a rural area became a mining town and then a city, only to disappear nearly as fast as it appeared. They are acting as a Greek chorus, effectively using props and sets to give a visual representation of the changing character of Picher.
Jianzi Colón-Soto superbly plays Rebecca Jim. She is a school teacher/counselor who becomes the activist guiding the town to the realization that an environmental disaster is consuming their town. She is also our guide through the last 30 years of Picher’s history, starting in 1983. Colón-Soto’s vocals give solid emotional impact to her songs as she draws the audience into the story’s core. The only issue for this writer is that her character does not age over those 30 years when all the other characters do.
The show is built around Rebecca Jim and her interactions with three families: the Rays, the Charles, and the Sanders with her dealings with Hoppy Ray (Bart Shatto) being a critical element. When the reality of the pollution caused by mining becomes an issue in town, Hoppy is one of the people who resist the idea. Shatto and Colón-Soto provide solid dramatic tension to the story, and both are in good voice in their singing roles.
Hoppy Ray, skillfully portrayed by Shatto, is a central figure to the citizens of Picher. He is a miner, a World War II vet, and a dedicated family man, and his pool hall is a meeting spot for the whole town. His wife, Rita (Patricia M. Lawrence), is dedicated to supporting him in every way she can. They are raising their grandson Tucker (Jasper Burger and Ricky Francese). He will play an important role in revealing the impact the pollution is having on not only him and his friends but also on the adults around him, most especially his grandmother.
Vick Charles (Bradley Lewis), his wife Grace (Kimberly JaJuan), and their daughter Brooke (Fin Moulding and Jenna Drahota) are a balancing element to the story. They provide a clear historical perspective from the Native American point of view. Vick is an activist on the town council. He is an ally of Rebecca Jim, and although he believes in the danger the pollution presents, he is less strident in his activism. Grace is a nurse who sees first-hand what is happening to the people of Picher, especially the children. She is also somewhat reluctant to force the issue of the pollution, that is, until her daughter Brooke becomes older and begins to confront the pollution issue forcefully.
The Sanders family, led by single mom Lenna (Jade Amber) with son Cayden (Calvin Knegten and Tony Carrubba), provides an example of the real-world impact of lead poisoning. Cayden was born prematurely, and because of lead poisoning, he has learning and speaking disabilities. At the time of his birth and early school years, the connection between lead pollution and his disabilities was unknown. Amber delivers Lenna as a fiercely focused mother, doing everything she can for the good of her son.
As the story progresses, the changes in the timeline are projected on the upstage screen: Act I, from 1983 to 1997, and Act II, from 2003 to 2013. The songs are well integrated with the storyline, adding context to the depicted scenes. The song “Picher Perfect Day” comes after the opening scene and sets a tone for what follows. It introduces the key players in each of the families and provides hints as to the struggles they will face. The song continues as the townspeople gather for a pep rally for the high school football team. Playing on the idea of “picture perfect” with the town’s name creates certain expectations of what is to follow. All the gathered townspeople sing the chorus at the end:
THE MINES BUILT UP OUR LITTLE TOWN
AND PEOPLE CAME FROM ALL AROUND
AND GREW TO FEEL THE PRIDE WE FEEL TODAY
PICHER’S HERE AND HERE TO STAY,
WE KNOW THAT IT WON’T FADE AWAY
IT’S GONNA BE ANOTHER PICHER PERFECT-DAY
This moment of civic pride is confronted not long after when a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) holds a town meeting where he tells them how bad the situation is for their town. The song “Town Hall #1” shows the developing conflicts among the townspeople, with some asking for proof and others saying things are as bad or worse than they are being told.
Lauren Pelaia and Irene Westfall’s music direction works perfectly with the score, filling out the story of Picher. The songs range from the anthems of civic pride to the fear developing because of the illnesses to the sorrow and tragedy apparent in the consequences of the years of mining. There are bright moments as people try to maintain a positive view in the face of the disaster in which they live. There are those in denial who refuse to accept what is happening, and there are those who leave for safer grounds. All these situations are well documented in the dialogue and song, with things becoming somber towards the end.
The scenic and prop design by Maren Prophit is ingenious, given the venue. The sets are timber frames that outline the front shape of buildings. They are shaped to be moved and placed against each other, suggesting different types of buildings. The props are also multipurpose: a bed in one scene and a table in another.
The choreography by McLain Powell is adequate in most cases but could be better defined within the context of the situations in which it is utilized. However, one choreography is a standout: depicting the devastating tornado that struck Picher in 2008, killing six, injuring 150, and destroying 20 blocks. This event was the coup de grace for Picher; with the EPA in the process of buying out the residents, rebuilding was not an option.
The tornado is “danced” by part of the ensemble grouped in a mass and moving their bodies to depict the swirling winds. They hold lights that act like the lightning in the storm. Other members are moving the sets that represent the town’s buildings, leaving them lying in awkward positions at the end. It is a solid piece of theater.
The show is not without some problems, the most critical being the sound system. Travis Wright’s sound design does not work, not only from the standpoint of the venue but also the balance of the music with the singers. It is unfortunate that this is the case because the music is so well integrated into the story, and some of those qualities are diminished; singing should always take precedence.
The band is just off stage and is amplified for the big numbers, and they are much too loud, overwhelming the actors singing. The actors did not appear to be wearing microphones, but I don’t think it would have helped. Some of the songs are performed semi-acoustically with guitars or violins, but when the full orchestration is added, the low-key effect of the instruments is lost. In other instances, the bluegrass quality of the music is lost.
Dixon Place and Exequtive Entertainment
Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission