BWW Reviews: THE PITMEN PAINTERS at ACT Showcases Terrific Ensemble
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by Jay Irwin
I'll have to admit I'm a sucker for those stories where people find new and wondrous things about themselves and succeed against all odds. Yes, I'm a sap, which is why I found myself tearing up a few times during ACT's current production of "The Pitmen Painters". It's not the most glorious script I've seen but it is a wonderful story of overcoming your given station in life and I have to say has one hell of an ensemble performing it.
In this true tale, it's the 1930's in Ashington, Northumberland (a tiny mining community in England) and five Pitmen (miners) have gathered to take a class on art appreciation put on by their local workers association. Pitmen George (Charles Leggett), Oliver (Jason Marr), Jimmy (Joseph P. McCarthy) and dental mechanic Harry (R. Hamilton Wright) and the unemployed young lad (Daniel Brockley) have never really even seen a piece of art before but they want their teacher Robert Lyon (Frank Lawler) to tell them what art means. But as this becomes more and more impossible, Lyon decides to have the men make their own art in order to get in touch with what it makes them feel. And this sends the five men on a path of artistic expression that gains them international notoriety but also threatens to change the only lives they've known and drive them apart.
As I've said the ensemble is terrific. Seattle staples Wright and Leggett are their usual powerhouse selves. Leggett with his by the book sweetness and Wright with his political ideals provide a great backbone for the play. As does Lawler with his flustered teacher just trying to get these men to open up. And McCarthy is hilarious as the uncomplicated Jimmy and his stirring monologue near the end showed off his marvelous range. But the incredible Marr and Brockley made the show what it meant for me. As the younger members of the group they showed the most growth over the play. Marr's gentle eagerness coupled with his intense passion completely drew you into his character and made you ache for him to succeed. And Brockley's naïve yet overly fervent young lad was an absolute joy to watch which he turned on a dime as he exploded on atrocities of the looming war. That coupled with his dual role of highbrow painter Ben Nicholson showed off some incredible talents and made me want to see him in more. I remembered how magnificent he was in Seattle Shakes "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and I hope this is the beginning of a lot more from him. I should also mention Morgan Rowe as the Pitmen's art patron Helen Sutherland who seemed to completely command the stage every time she set foot on it.
With a very sparse set coupled with gorgeous projections of the art and very able direction from Kurt Beattie, the two and a half hour show could have been a labor to make it through. And even though I found it a little verbose at times, with the amount of passion and heart the cast pour into these men, it just flies by and was an absolute pleasure to watch.
"The Pitmen Painters" performs at ACT through May 20th. For tickets or information contact the ACT box office at 206-292-7676 or visit them online at www.acttheatre.org.
Photo credit: Chris Bennion