Audible, Inc. has given Coal Country a second chance. Its first run at The Public Theater aborted by the Pandemic, this heartbreaking tale of corporate malfeasance in America’s heartland still deserves to be seen.
Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have taken the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in West Virginia twelve years ago—on April 5th to be exact—and have spun it into a play with music that delves into the human toll of that tragic event.
Songwriter Steve Earle, a three-time Grammy Award winner, returns providing homey, twangy music and acting as an understanding host/narrator. With charm that belies the depth of Coal Country’s horror, he pulls the audience into the sad story, sometimes musically underlining the confessions of those involved, most particularly the tale of the sole survivor of the disaster, Tommy, played with passion and an undertone of survivor’s guilt by Michael Laurence.
The reboot at the Cherry Lane Theatre is the same production as the one at The Public with two cast changes from the original: Carl Palmer (stalwart and moving) replaces Michael Gaston as the character Goose who warned that the mine was a “ticking time bomb”; and Kym Gomes replaces Melinda Tanner in the role of the Judge who opens the play with a trial scene that introduces the malfeasance of Massey Energy, the company that took over the running of the coal mine.
One by one the characters reval themselves, their thick country accents only adding to the authenticity of their plight. To me, the character of Judy, a doctor played with eloquence by Deirdre Madigan exemplifies Coal Country’s nuances. Her straightforward story of her life begins innocently enough, but comes up as shockingly awful as the others, despite the fact that she raised herself out of poverty and the working class.
The sole Black character, Roosevelt (Ezra Knight, a large man with a delicate manner) has a wistful tale of his dad’s musical tastes.
As the stories intertwine, interrupted and/or underlined by music, and we get to know these people of West Virginia, the full shock effect hits. Seeing the entire cast silhouetted in David Lander’s dramatic lighting somehow unites them into the supportive and suffering community they represent, helped by Jessica Jahn’s down-home costumes. Richard Hoover provides a wooden set that has the feeling of a slightly deteriorating log cabin.
Blank has directed her show knowing exactly what order of the stories and their building emphases should be. She knows her own material.
Coal Country (March 10 – April 17, 2022)
Audible Theater presents The Public Theater production
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.CoalCountryMusical.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission