This delightful city is about as far as one can venture from Kentucky’s coalmines without actually stepping north, from America, into Canada. Regardless, Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman’s Fire on the Mountain movingly captures the ups and very deep downs of that world, as if the Appalachians were as close as the Cascades.
Just steps from the stunning Space Needle — and a ten-minute walk from the impressive, brand-new Olympic Sculpture Park on the Elliott Bay waterfront — Fire on the Mountain is at the Seattle Rep Theater through March 24. It concerns somewhere very distant in every way from this hotbed of seafood and software. Told largely through the bluegrass music indigenous to the Kentucky-Tennessee-West Virginia coal belt, this 90-minute, one-act show celebrates the industriousness and professionalism of coal miners and the care and support of their loved ones. Myler and Wheetman, the Tony-nominated duo behind It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, also empathize with the hardships these laborers endure. With the 800-seat auditorium virtually brimming with urban sophisticates, this show might have tried to score cheap points by portraying miners as unpolished rubes. Instead, it offers abundant and appropriate respect for those whose product yields half of America’s electric power, even today.
Wheetman sings most of this show’s songs, along with Lee Morgan and “Mississippi” Charles Bevel. They appear on stage with another seven performers. Most play at least one instrument while Wheetman’s real-life son, Trevor, bounces from bass to banjo to dobro to fiddle to mandolin.
The amusing Molly Andrews as “Daughter” sings several songs from the perspective of a mountain woman new to love and marriage. She also earns a few laughs by dancing a bluegrass jig in thick, black shoes.
Margaret A. Bowman is perfectly cast and utterly believable as “Momma,” a middle-aged housewife who sees her husband and son off to work every morning, always wondering if they will return.
With a rich voice and considerable stage presence, Mike Regan as Momma’s son is especially engaging. He explains how miners once used helmets with open-flame carbide lamps to navigate through the darkness.
“When you hit a pocket of natural gas,” he says, “blow you’re a** into next week.”
Also, the passionate Bevel is a revelation as a black miner. I always considered coal mining a lily-white occupation, but this show indicates that black men manned the mines, too. Bevel stirringly devotes his raspy voice to this topic. He also asserts that race relations in the mines were better than one might have imagined, in part because, after hours of being sprinkled with coal dust, blacks became indistinguishable from whites.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “we all look the same.”
While Fire on the Mountain lacks a plot, as such, its players’ monologues and occasional dialogues illuminate the long hours, backbreaking duties, huge risks, slim rewards, and intermittent tragedies inherent to coal mines and their surrounding communities. Thirty-six songs expand on these themes, largely in bluegrass numbers, a couple of blues tunes, and even a few gospel-flavored compositions that reflect the religiosity of so many of these rural outposts.
The most memorable songs include the title tune; an instrumental called “Roll on, Buddy,” “Coal Tattoo,” “Blind Fiddler,” and “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” On this and other selections, Lee Morgan’s voice and charisma warm the crowd like a Franklin furnace. While many of the lyrics are quite humorous, others are more poignant, such as this passage from “Dark as a Dungeon:”
I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner a-diggin’ my bones.
Enhancing the show’s atmosphere are vintage black-and-white photos projected on two large screens. Many of these pictures are from the Library of Congress’ collection of visuals from Appalachia’s mines and the austere communities they nourished. A grizzled, soot-stained miner sips from a ladle of water in one striking image. In another, a racially integrated group of miners rides inside a small, open-air, underground railcar. They are silent, with a grim determination etched into each of their blackened faces.
Scenic designer Vicki Smith’s set also amplifies the Appalachian ambiance. Amid United Mine Workers placards and the insignia of assorted mining companies, a large, wooden sign on the wall advises, “Be careful today, be alive tomorrow.”
For all the travails coal miners survived (and still do), Fire on the Mountain honors their work ethic and quiet dignity. After six straight days of drudgery, they typically cleaned up, attended church, and socialized amid co-workers, home-made cooking, and bluegrass hoe-downs.
“Sunday is their day off,” Momma observes in her wide, cotton dress. “Coal miner — he only gets one sunset a week.”
Tickets for Fire on the Mountain range from $10 to $48 and are available by calling the Seattle Repertory Theater at 877-900-9285 or 206-443-2222.