Stage review: A skillful 'Pitmen Painters' digs deep for meaning of art


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In "The Pitmen Painters," Lee Hall returns to territory he explored in "Billy Elliot," but this time, the impoverished Englishmen are based on real people, who like Billy are transformed by the power of art.

Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre has mounted a staunch, skillful production with an accomplished cast, led by Simon Bradbury's searing portrayal of Oliver Kilbourn, a pitman (miner) who is handed the opportunity to break from his comrades and pursue a cushier life as an artist.

'The Pitman Painters'

Where: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre at Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland.

When: Through June 23. 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. June 23. Post-show talk-back June 12 (panel).

Tickets: $48, student and senior discounts available; picttheatrecompany.org and ProArtsTickets at 412-394-3353.

Note: Brief nudity.

To take us along on the pitmen's journey, from the 1930s through World War II, timely clips of coal mining and battlefields and projections of artwork are employed as they were in the West End and on Broadway. For PICT, set designer Gianni Downs and projection designer Jessi Sedon-Essad have created video displays on canvas-like screens propped on easels, a clever device for the intimate Henry Heymann Theatre.

When the play begins, the Workers' Educational Association, which gave English workers the opportunity to advance their learning, is in full bloom in the coal-mining town of Ashington. Mr. Hall focuses on a handful of its citizens who take part in an art appreciation class -- there were more in real life -- to explore the group dynamic vs. individualism and the profound divide between English workers and the privileged class.

Students who are informed by their World War I experiences include avowed socialist Harry Wilson (Alan Stanford), a dental mechanic who can't toil in the mines because, as he must defend himself repeatedly, "I was gassed in the Somme." Harry has something political to say on most subjects, scattered with quotes by Karl Marx, while the other relative old-timer of the group, George (Larry John Meyers), is a stickler for details who tries to keep everyone in line with the rules of the WEA.

The archetypes represented by individuals within the group make for lively conversations -- these chaps don't believe in withholding the truth to spare each other's feelings, but they don't hold grudges, either. They all hunger for education and escapism from life in the pits, where some have toiled since they were 10 years old.

When art instructor Robert Lyons arrives, telling how he has toured Italy with artist Henry Moore, he and his students find they are not speaking the same language. They may be countrymen, but their accents, idioms and experiences are worlds apart. The group's expectation of an art class is simple: Tell us how to look at a painting and discern its meaning.

The instructor's point that art exists to be interpreted by the observer, who must bring his own feelings to the experience, is lost on his students. Lyons quickly alights on the idea that they should create and discuss their own work. Technique is never an issue; just do it, and let's go from there.

When the results are beyond his expectations, he introduces the pitmen painters to wealthy patron Helen Sutherland, and their story reaches out to the greater art world. Exhibitions are held, paintings are sold, and Oliver is made an offer most of us couldn't refuse.

Mr. Bradbury displays "the soul of an artist" that catches the eye of Sutherland (Linda Kimbrough, who glides through her scenes with matter-of-fact elegance). The actor conveys the joy of discovery when explaining his understanding of a Ben Nicholson artwork -- a circle and square carved into a white wooden board -- and he pulls us into his inner conflict when agonizing about whether to become a full-time artist or stay put in the pits.

Group members don't hold back their resentments when Oliver is the one to receive an offer of patronage. George can't abide by anything that might fly in the face of WEA rules, while his nephew (Bernard Balbot), who has been on the dole and desperate for work, can't understand how Oliver could give up a secure job. Jimmy (Daryll Heysham), who likes painting pretty pictures and who entertains and frustrates with his non sequiturs, wants a share in Oliver's good fortune. Only Harry, who acknowledges Oliver's tragic background, reaches out with empathy for a friend.

As Lyons, Brad Heberlee sheds his recent role for PICT, the misguided Dr. Givings in "In the Next Room," to become a relatable stranger in a strange land, a visitor from the ivory tower of the fine arts world. When his students discover that Lyons has written a dissertation about them and has won a coveted new job, they don't feel so much exploited as abandoned. Isn't the instructor, after all, part of the group?

The fine cast under Andrew Paul's direction does justice to Mr. Hall's juxtaposition of working-class aspirations and real-world obstacles. As he did with "Billy Elliot" on screen and stage, the playwright has injected humor and grace into a drama of very human proportions.

theaterreviews

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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