“The Pitman Painters” at ACT

I just love it when a playwright is able to combine hearty humor with thought-provoking issues. You’ve got a terrific display of both in “The Pitman Painters” by Lee Hall now playing at ACT. Director Kurt Beattie has mined the script for every nuance, every laugh, and every poignant moment as it examines the role of social class in providing access to the uplifting experiences offered by the arts.

The play is based on the real-life story of pitmen (miners) in northern England who in 1934 happened upon an art course and, despite seemingly impossible obstacles, wound up creating a body of acclaimed art. Their journey from ignorance to enlightenment is a raucous transition complete with bizarre miscommunications, quaint “truths,” and marvelous dialog. Frank Lawler as Robert Lyon, is an indefatigable teacher passionate in his quest to inspire.

Subtly yet indelibly cast members make each miner  unique—Charles Leggett, perfect as an officious stickler to the rules, Joseph P McCarthy charmingly buffoonish as Jimmy, Daniel Brockley as the unemployed youth who knows just how to stay out of the way but get a word in here and there. Jason Marr imbues the talented Oliver with pride yet hesitancy, a man afraid to take a chance. Watching him struggle with awareness of his talent is a delight. The only non-pitman in the group is the dental technician who spouts Marxist creed at every opportunity played with gusto by R. Hamilton Wright.

Cheers also for this production’s creative team. The sound of mining equipment during blackouts does much to suggest what life in the mines was like. The images projected aloft introduce the audience to the art these men produced.

So, can only the well-educated, privileged members of society create art or even appreciate it? We, of course, are shocked to even think of such a question. Surely this is strictly a British class-system problem. But be reminded: it has been less than 50 years that museums in this country have made any effort to entice the unwashed public into their sacred halls. Public outreach simply wasn’t considered before then. Only those who were educated to appreciate art were welcome to it.

Through May 20 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org)

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