Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 27, 2012

Art for all

Inspiring 'Pitmen Painters' plays like a plea for art education

by Chad Jones

How do you teach an art-appreciation class to someone who's never seen a painting? The answer, according to Lee Hall's drama "The Pitmen Painters," is that you don't. You let your students paint their own pictures and build an appreciation from there.

That's how it actually happened for the members of the Ashington Group, a collective of coal miners in Northern England circa 1934 who, in embarking on an art class offered by their Workers Educational Association, ended up garnering a certain notoriety in the British art world up through the 1970s.

The inspiring and transforming nature of art is a recurring theme in the work of British scribe Hall, who is most famous for his screenplay (and later Broadway musical adaptation of) "Billy Elliot," about a boy in a depressed coal-mining town who defies local norms and becomes a dancer.

"Pitmen Painters," which had a warmly received run on Broadway in 2010 and is still running in London's West End, is now at TheatreWorks, and it's a noble theatrical undertaking.

The fact that this is a true story is inspiring all by itself (with a nod to William Feaver's book "Pitmen Painters, the Ashington Group 1934-1984"). And that the production, directed by Leslie Martinson, makes good use of the actual Pitmen paintings, seen in projections and reproductions made for the stage, serves as a wonderful introduction to a fascinating chapter of art history probably unknown to most Americans.

When art teacher Robert Lyon (Paul Whitworth) arrives in Ashington, he's not quite prepared for the sub-beginner level of his five students: three coal miners, a dental mechanic and an unemployed lad. Lyon puts a slide of a painting on the screen and says, "A Titian," to which a student replies, "Bless you."

Lyon quickly realizes that these men need hands-on experience with composition and color and subject before they can even begin to think about the great masters. When the miners begin bringing in their work, it's clear that they not only have a distinct point of view but also an astonishing measure of talent.

With art serving as a common denominator for humanity — the British class system be damned — Hall spends most of his play's nearly two-and-a-half hours delving into the meaning of art and what it means to be an artist, both inside and outside the professional art establishment.

This is a static play, and to director Martinson's credit, the only dull patches hover briefly in Act Two. It's essentially words and paintings and words about paintings. There's a danger that this mostly plotless docudrama will become its own sort of remedial art class, but Martinson and her appealing cast — featuring some of the Bay Area's best actors — keep the pedantry to a minimum and turn up the dial on what Hall clearly finds to be an inspiring story.

"The point of a painting is how it makes you feel," the art teacher says. "Does art have to have a message?" someone asks later on.

The purpose of art, one inspired painter says, is to create a sense of awe and to grapple with "the mystery of being alive." Another decides that art is "making things possible that weren't there before."

And, feeding the pro-proletariat fervor of the play, Act One ends with the assertion that "Real art belongs to everyone."

Once that proclamation is made, there's not really much farther for the play to go. So if Hall's drama never builds up much steam, at least we continue to care about the painters themselves, but more as a group rather than individuals. (For dramatic purposes, Hall reduced a group of about 20 to five.)

James Carpenter plays George, the stern leader of the group who is strictly by the book, especially when chiding his on-the-dole nephew (Nicolas Pelczar). Jackson Davis is the closest the play comes to comic relief as Jimmy, the miner who never hesitates to express his befuddlement with all this art stuff. Dan Hiatt gets some fiery moments as the Marx-quoting socialist who feels art should be radical and political, but the heart of the play belongs to Patrick Jones as Oliver Kilbourn, the miner with the soul of an artist.

Kilbourn's paintings (seen in the helpful projections created by Jim Gross) are extraordinary, especially when you consider he was completely self-taught. Jones is a soft-spoken but solid presence, believable as a proud miner and equally believable as a man capable of creating works of beauty. Jones' character, and, indeed, his performance, is the only one shaded with real complexity.

There's not a lot of female energy in this miner-centric tale, but Marcia Pizzo makes an elegant impression as a wealthy art lover fond of taking artists under her well-upholstered wing. And Kathryn Zdan charms in the superfluous role of a life-study model.

To Hall's credit, he keeps the focus on the art teacher and the miner-artists and everything their success meant in terms of class, creativity and the artistic potential in every person if given the opportunity to express it. There's no forced romance, no artificial drama, no Hollywood flourishes. But there's still a lingering feeling that, despite the inspiring real-life story, what we have in "The Pitmen Painters" is less a play than it is a well-argued, well-intentioned plea for more arts and more arts education.

What: "The Pitmen Painters" by Lee Hall, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through Feb. 12 with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. shows Saturday and Sunday and 7 p.m. shows Sunday

Cost: Tickets are $19-$69 with student, senior and educator discounts.

Info: Go to http://theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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