Theater Review: 'The Pitmen Painters,' Vermont Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'The Pitmen Painters,' Vermont Stage

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Published October 5, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


From left: Scott Renzoni, Tyler Rackliffe, Roya Millard, Quinn Rol and Ryan Poulin - COURTESY OF LINDSAY RAYMONDJACK PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
  • From left: Scott Renzoni, Tyler Rackliffe, Roya Millard, Quinn Rol and Ryan Poulin

Art "infects any man whatever his plane of development," wrote Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy in his 1897 philosophical treatise What Is Art? This bold claim challenged status-quo beliefs among European high-culture elites in the twilight of the 19th century. Just a few decades later, some groundbreaking modern art movements — cubism, Dadaism, expressionism, surrealism — had defined art even more radically than Tolstoy.

In The Pitmen Painters, the Vermont Stage production running at Burlington's Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, thorny questions about art emerge in 1934 northern England when three coal miners (aka pitmen), one so-called "dental mechanic," an unemployed man and a teacher meet in an adult-education class on art appreciation. Appreciating art turns out to be more complicated than the men anticipate, especially for their teacher, a sort-of-but-not-quite art professor named Robert Lyon, played with sensitivity and fussy ferocity by Jordan Gullikson. Although Lyon's pupils are open to learning, they're impatient with the elusive nature of art's meaning.

So, in an epiphany that brings to mind another turn-of-the-century philosopher, John Dewey, Lyon directs his students to appreciate art by making it. The men begin producing paintings and showing them during class. Before long, word of their artwork reaches the wider community, including the wealthy socialite and art collector Helen Sutherland, played with captivating poise by Chloë Fidler, who joins Lyon in promoting the group.

The Pitmen Painters was inspired by contemporary author and art critic William Feaver's 1988 book Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group, 1934-1984; the characters and general premise are nonfiction. The play debuted in England in 2007. Playwright Lee Hall is perhaps better known for writing the screenplay and book and lyrics for the musical theater rendition of Billy Elliot, also set in English coal country (in the 1980s). Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters share a thematic interest in unearthing ordinary folks' hidden creativity.

In the Vermont Stage production, directed deftly by Cristina Alicea, creativity surfaces readily through energetic performances. The central ensemble portrays men who are alike in many respects but who embody distinct artistic sensibilities. Not every character develops in great depth, but Alicea steers this troupe clear of didacticism. The play hits a few Big Ideas About Art a touch too squarely, but the cast is adept at sincerely blending them into the conversation.

Most impressive, The Pitmen Painters avoids a clichéd take on the social dynamics into which the working-class students have stepped. The play sets up as a familiar tale of uncultured brutes redeemed by a kind, erudite savior. But class divisions yield to a fresher commentary on individuality, solidarity and art's purpose in the sooty, dangerous, industrialized world.

Cora Fauser's costume designs do quietly important work in conveying the pitmen's dignity. Dressed in jackets, ties, trousers and clean shoes, they invite respect for having shown up for cultural enrichment after the day's difficult labors. They're neither besmudged nor bedraggled. And if they're perplexed by the first images their teacher shows them, it's not because their time underground has impaired their perception but because they just don't get out much.

Scenic designer Jeff Modereger's stage implies that the mine is never far from body or mind. Wooden beams (or what looks like wood) frame the stage like tunnel supports. A dozen or so soft lights hang down around them. The stage is mostly empty of props and furniture. Occasionally, a character will pull a chair to center stage to mount a piece of artwork that will then be projected onto the upstage wall. The projections are helpful in following the characters' appraisal of each other's work, even if the images are sometimes partially obscured by the tunnel timbers.

Over a roughly eight-year span, the play chronicles art's life-altering impact on the pitmen painters through their work and their debates, which raise penetrating questions: What makes art good? What is the relationship between art's quality and its value? What is art's social purpose? What is an artist, anyway?

These heady topics find engaging form in a versatile cast. Roya Millard, playing the group's leader, George, manages his peers with a presence that's comically blustery but also warmly avuncular despite his bouts of bombast.

Tyler Rackliffe's Jimmy starts out as class clown but soon catalyzes a critical conversation about how to evaluate nonrepresentational art, revealing a burgeoning and convincing intellectual curiosity.

Dental technician Harry has been drawn as a Marxist pedant, but Scott Renzoni's acting compels sympathy and maintains a bond with the group through his own earthly travails: He still feels the ill effects of being gassed in the trenches of World War I. It falls to Harry to grouse most pointedly about the low quality of life in their mining town: "Beauty? You've got to be joking. There's nothing beautiful about living around here."

Ryan Poulin's unemployed Young Lad contributes the least to the group's social mix, but Poulin brims with confidence — and a flourish of unctuous egotism — in his other role as painter Ben Nicholson, one of Helen's favorites. While paying a social call to his patron, Ben encounters miner-artist Oliver, with whom he shares some rough truths about the rarified art scene.

Playing Oliver, the group member most temperamentally inclined toward art, Quinn Rol performs the miner's artistic awakening as a deeply personal experience, one fraught with difficult ethical considerations. While the play moves quickly through the pitmen's fleeting art-historical vogue, Rol plays Oliver with notable patience, allowing his character to grow.

That growth hits a critical turning point when Oliver considers leaving the mines for the artist's life, an opportunity that Helen extends in some of the play's deepest and most nuanced exchanges. Rol wears anguish like an ill-fitting suit that life has given him scarce occasion to wear. Fidler plays the socialite in full dimension — capable of empathy even for this man well below her station. Oliver may be her pet project, but he is not her pet.

The question of exploitation surrounds the group's acclaim as Lyon's profile gets a boost by association. The culmination of this tutelage — some details of which would be spoilers — produces two scenes in which Gullikson shows the guilt that lies beyond Lyon's support for the group. Gullikson offers glimpses of Lyon's own unrealized artistic potential — flickers of vulnerability that, while well-earned through skillful acting, do not chip attention away from the ensemble at the story's core.

The appearance of art student Susan, played by Clarise Fearn, throws light into the beginning and end of the play. She arrives to an early scene ready to model nude for the painters — at a time when they know little about art-making practices and some of them even less about a woman's body. When she reappears later in the play, the nation is girding for World War II, and she has made pivotal life decisions that foreshadow the pitmen painters' need to yield to more powerful forces than art.

This would not be the end of the line for some of the pitmen painters, but the wider context brings this idealistic story back to earth. Art history, labor history and world history collide like coal cars in a vast tunnel network. When the dust settles in this lively, thought-provoking staging of The Pitmen Painters, we're left with an illumination useful in any time: Art's most transformative effect is not in producing artists but in awakening a broader appreciation for our common humanity.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tunnel Visions"

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