Like a classic folk ballad, full of understated outrage and exquisite down-home music, “Coal Country,” in an encore presentation at the Cherry Lane, tells the devastating true story of the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine of West Virginia, which killed 29 miners, and exposed the criminally negligent conduct of the mine’s owner.
Seven actors persuasively perform a script put together by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (the husband-wife team that also created the documentary dramas The Exonerated and The Line), based on interviews with the two survivors and family members of those who were killed. Steve Earle sings original songs, accompanying himself on guitar, in-between the stories that these residents of Raleigh County tell.
One by one, they paint a picture of a life before the explosion, both with their loved ones and in a coal mining community that went back generations, with no other work available. It’s not all grim. Goose and Mindi (Carl Palmer and Amelia Campbell) tell the funny and charming story of how they became husband and wife. Gary (Thomas Kopache), 34 years in coal mining, recalls his earliest days on the job. “Back then, it was all strictly union, I mean hard-nosed union. Eight hour shift…My crews was like family.”
Then one by one they detail the horror and excruciating heartbreak surrounding the tragedy. When Goose, one of the few coal miners to survive, is finally able to telephone Mindi, she breaks down and cries hysterically.
“I thought you’d be happy to hear me,” Goose says (which gets a big laugh.)
When Goose finally makes it home, “First thing I said to him, please don’t ever go back.”
Goose: It’s what I do.
Mindi: You listen to me, if I have to buy macaroni, and we eat macaroni one night and the cheese sauce the next, and the box the next day, we will make it.
In the bleak aftermath that exists to the present, each mourns not just for the deaths of sons and brothers, husbands and fathers, but for the demise of the community. Tommy (Michael Laurence), who lost a son, a brother, and a nephew, explains how he used to play the guitar and sing the song “Let the Circle Be Unbroken” with family members. “But now, nobody does nothing no more….Used to have seven generations here. I say the circle broke.”
The pandemic cut short the original run of “Coal Country” at the Public Theater in March 2020. (It was subsequently released as an audio play by Audible, which is co-producing its in-person return — with its dramatic lighting and spare woodsy set intact.) The play is reopening tonight at what is arguably an especially opportune moment – when the world’s focus is on the deadly politics of energy. This gives extra heft to an underlying message in the play, which may be clearest in its treatment of Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, the mine’s owner. The play is implicitly framed as the victim impact statements that the judge did not allow them to say after Blankenship was convicted at trial (but sentenced to only a year in prison, after which he called himself a political prisoner and in 2020 ran for president of the United States.)
“Coal Country” hews closely to the story at hand, but there is one remark that reverberates now in a way that it might not have before. Judy (Deirdre Madigan) had a brother who died in the UBB mine, yet, though she grew up in a mining family in the area, she is now viewed as an outsider because she became a physician.
“When all was said and done and all the investigations and the trials were finished, it had nothing to do with some kind of complicated, difficult to understand, chain of events,” Judy says. The coal they were mining dangerously deep into what’s called the longwall was high-quality coal, expensive coal, for which they were making six hundred thousand dollars a day. “And if they shut down for safety, that cuts into that six hundred thousand dollars a day.
“And we’re all complicit, because the lights must stay on, right? It is a war, and these coal miners are victims of the war.”
An Audible and Public Theater production at Cherry Lane Theater through April 17
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $66 – $82 at box office
Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Music written and performed by Steve Earle
Richard Hoover (scenic design), Jessica Jahn (costume design), David Lander (lighting design), Darron L West (sound design), and Adesola Osakalumi (movement director)
Cast: Mary Bacon (Patti), Amelia Campbell (Mindi), Kym Gomes (Judge), Ezra Knight (Roosevelt), Thomas Kopache (Gary), Michael Laurence (Tommy), Deirdre Madigan (Judy) and Carl Palmer (Goose).