‘The Pitmen Painters’ at 1st Stage by Julia L. Exline

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FOUR AND A HALF STARS
“Why do we assume that the educated and privileged have more to say than anyone else?”

1st Stage presents The Pitmen Painters, a fascinating true story written by famed writer Lee Hall about creativity, politics, and inclusion regarding social classes and the world of fine arts. When a group of working-class miners sign up for an art appreciation course, unknown talents are unearthed…talents that throw the blue-collar men headfirst into the elite world of art, and all of the pleasures and pitfalls that come with it. Stevie Zimmerman directs this hugely interesting and poignant production  that features a strong ensemble of talented actors.

(from left)  Dylan Myer (Oliver), James Miller (Harry), Alden Michels (George), and Jason Tamborini (Jimmy). Photo by Teresa Castracane.
(from left) Dylan Myers (Oliver), James Miller (Harry), Alden Michels (George), and Jason Tamborini (Jimmy). Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Set Designer Steven Royal uses an unfinished backdrop to depict a former army hut. Screens are set onto the wall and project images of original paintings throughout the show, allowing the audience to clearly see which piece the actors are discussing. The floor is splattered with paint splotches, and old, nicked wooden furniture fills the space. Paint easels and scattered art supplies sit in the corner, seemingly forgotten and almost going unnoticed. Slanted lighting by Kristen Thompson and the sounds of mining tools provided by Bradley Porter complete the atmosphere– one of labor, struggle, and dust.

It is here that a group of miners meet for a weekly art appreciation class sponsored by the Worker Educational Association, having been denied their first choice, “Introduction to Economics,” because a teacher was not available. Alden Michels thrives as the stringent, self-proclaimed leader of the group, thrashing the rule book under someone’s nose at the slightest sight of transgression. Dylan Myers gives a sweet performance as the hunching, shy introvert Oliver Kilbourn – a wallflower whose striking talents you need to keep a keen eye on. Ryan Alan Jones is a scrappy, eager young Ben Nicholson, James Miller is the bitter Harry Wilson, a Marxist who will share (or shout) his views at anyone who will listen, and Jason Tamborini completes the group as Jimmy Floyd, a simple-but-kind miner looking for a change in his tedious schedule.

Their instructor, Robert Lyon (Matt Dewberry) proves a stark contrast to his students, shown in their inability to even understand each other, as Lyon has a standard English accent and the miners speak with a “Geordie” dialect native to the northeast coast of England (an accent so thick that it had to be softened so that the American audience can understand the actors clearly). When Lyon starts showing a series of slides depicting masterpieces from the Renaissance (a word he had to say over and over before they understood him), it becomes clear that these men know very little (okay, nothing) about art history and technique, nor have the intellectual tools needed to discuss it.

Lyon decides that their best lesson plan involves the men creating pieces of their own and critiquing each other’s work. Reluctantly, the men bring in their paintings depicting what they know best– men at work. Lyon is shocked with his student’s raw talents, and they analyze each other’s works in a funny scene, arguing about different meanings and interpretations (“it’s meant to be a picture, not a manual of coal mining!”) When Nicholson is convinced that a lead pipe in Wilson’s painting signifies impotence, the resulting argument leads the men to understand that art’s meaning lies mainly with the audience, and not the artist.

As the classes progress, so does the talent in Lyon’s students. Lyon arranges a gallery exhibition of their work, gaining national attention and thrusting the men into a privileged world that leaves them baffled and awed. Tensions begin to arise, from political issues like copyright claims, job offers, and personal values (best shown in a fun scene where the startled men shoo a nude model (Stephanie Parks) brought in by Lyon  from their workspace. Art collector and socialite Helen Sutherland (MiRan Powell) becomes interested in the group’s works, further stirring the pot and widening the men’s views on high society.

With fame comes different sides of the characters. Passion and fervor abound as the stakes are risen. Matt Dewberry’s portrayal of Robert Lyon could easily be interpreted two drastically different ways; is he an engaging (if not a bit patronizing) instructor who wishes nothing but the best for his students, or does he, in fact, exploit his students for his own personal gain? Or can it possibly be both? Says Lyon in a speech to his peers at a lavish exhibit, “It’s not that the working class doesn’t have talent, it’s that no one’s given them a paintbrush.” The miners sit together as Lyon speaks, their expressions becoming more and more troubled as Lyon laments on the social gap in the art world. Watching them, you wish they’d stand up and speak for themselves…and finally, they do. What they have to say is well worth your attention.

MiRan Powell (Helen) and Dylan Myer (Oliver).  Photo by Teresa Castracane.
MiRan Powell (Helen) and Dylan Myer (Oliver). Photo by Teresa Castracane.

If you are interested in art history, then The Pitmen Painters is an absolute ‘Must-See.’ Non-art history buffs will love it too! Grab a pair of tickets before they pack up their easels!

Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

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The Pitmen Painters plays through October 13, 2013 at 1st Stage Theatre – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in McLean, VA. For tickets, order them online.

LINKS:
Meet The Cast of 1st Stage’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’ Part 1: James Miller by Joel Markowitz.

Meet The Cast of 1st Stage’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’ Part 2: MiRan Powell by Joel Markowitz.