Opening Nights: The Pitmen Painters

Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

Lee Hall's endearing hit about English coal miners during the 1930s and '40s who get turned on to art—a true story—is like watching an affecting, informative slide show with a few duplicate images. Not that I particularly mind. Culling a few scenes would've lessened the run time (nearly three hours, with intermission), but it might've jeopardized the sense of fraternal history you get from the reiteration. Fine actors, subtly directed by Kurt Beattie, capture the wonder of "seeing" art for the first time, and of scoffing at it, in a rich polyphony of accents coached by Alyssa Keene. (The setting is Northumberland, north of Newcastle.)

Unable to procure the class they had hoped for (economics), the adult self-improvement students ruefully tolerate passionate and patronizing art teacher Mr. Lyon (a dapper Frank Lawler). In his funniest appearance since A Confederacy of Dunces, Charles Leggett deadpans George, the union administrator, for whom everything is a violation of some rule or other. R. Hamilton Wright slays as Harry, a "dental mechanic" with socialist sensibilities. Jason Marr has the fullest character arc as Oliver, whose talent attracts patroness Helen Sutherland (marvelous Morgan Rowe), but whose pride resists her help. But many of the most enviable lines go to Joseph P. McCarthy as thick, whiny Jimmy—whose Geordie accent ("I just come to get oot the hoose") occasionally sounded Bronx-y to me, but my British friend bought it.

Most scenes are short, with screen captions identifying place and year. On Carey Wong's unadorned set, the worn wood floorboards confer sepia tones to the action above; fleeting audioscapes by Brendan Patrick Hogan also help secure the historical period. Much of the art being discussed by Mr. Lyon is projected on screens for us to see—sometimes this is awesome, as when we first see the colliers' own first creations. But it can also be didactic, as when George and Harry hold forth on 18th-century Chinese painting.

When the miners lose themselves in art and forget their class, their intelligence shines. All they need is an opportunity—a theme familiar from Hall's Oscar-nominated script for Billy Elliot. A few forced story elements notwithstanding, this beautiful production will win your heart. But Hall hasn't written a simple, cheerful Billy Elliot sequel here: Arts and education funding can be transformative, he reminds us, but those benefits, heartbreakingly, can disappear during times of austerity. Though set in the industrial past, his 2007 play is very much relevant to our current economy, too.

 
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