It's the opening scene of The Pitmen Painters, and a group of British miners is listening to a wannabe art professor lecture them on Renaissance paintings. To art scholars, the man's words and the visual references he brings on an old slide projector are the building blocks of art history. To the miners, he's an elitist windbag, speaking a language far removed from theirs.
It's 1934, and the small collective of pitmen are gathered for a Workers Educational Association class; they would have preferred a course on economics but wound up with "Art Appreciation" instead. The miners are concrete thinkers, yet art requires them to grasp abstract concepts. So the tutor, Robert Lyon, is having a hard time getting through to them. Conversations end in rhetorical stalemates and Clintonian axioms: "What does the painting mean?" "What do you mean, what does it mean?" Lyon eventually throws up his hands, suggesting the best way for the men to learn about art is to create it themselves.
The Pitmen Painters is based on a true story that became legendary. Known as the Ashington Group, the miners would become renowned for their impressionist-style renderings of life in and around the coal mines, completed without formal training and despite a caste system that filed "art" under the domain of the wealthy. Art critic William Feaver wrote a book about the Ashington Group that Lee Hall adapted into the play, which is currently being produced by Palm Beach Dramaworks.
Hall, who wrote the screenplays for Billy Elliot and War Horse, is an overly cinematic playwright. There's even a montage sequence — a form of narrative compression that works better on film than on stage.
The action covers a 14-year time span, and there must be at least a dozen scenes in each of the play's two acts, both of which lumber. At two hours and 40 minutes, the work is entirely too long, and Dramaworks' director, J. Barry Lewis, can't milk enough energy out of a play that, too often, spins its wheels. The Pitmen Painters doesn't have enough new ideas to sustain its duration, instead relying on reiterations of previous motifs about class warfare, the allure of capitalism, and the importance of authenticity.
It's not often that an entire act of a play feels superfluous, but The Pitmen Painters would have been stronger — and certainly a wittier and more engaging work — if it had ended at intermission. Act one, which chronicles the pitmen's ascent from recalcitrant Philistines to genuine artists full of profound thoughts and ideas, already completes a convincing character transformation. By the time act two introduces the horrors of the Second World War, the play has plunged into a mire of turgid didacticism.
Not all is lost, however, thanks to a committed cast whose busy ensemble scenes really sizzle, with a seemingly effortless ease and spontaneity. For a play with a socialist heartbeat, there is appropriately no leader among the cast, no scenery-chewing performance that towers above the others. The production is an egalitarian showcase for the talents of Declan Mooney, as the group's most promising artist; Dennis Creaghan, as its intransigent supervisor; Colin McPhillamy, as its lovable simpleton; Rob Donohoe, as its dyed-in-the-wool Marxist; Joby Earle, as its youngest member, jobless and floundering; and John Leonard Thompson, as the mirthless instructor. Betsy Graver, as a nude model, and Kim Cozort, as an affluent art patron, are introduced later, though the latter has some trouble projecting her accent, making a portion of her dialogue difficult to grasp.
Par for the course at Dramaworks, the production's technical elements are outstanding in their subtlety and unobtrusiveness. Though it uses just one backdrop — an austere interior of a gray meeting-hall building — the modest set transforms into a number of locations, from galleries to gardens, rendered beautifully by Matt Corey's sound design and Rob Burns' lighting.
But the best aspects of the production are the projection screens hanging from the top of the set. When unfurled, they offer a multitude of examples of the paintings completed by the real-life Pitmen Painters. Once, while the professor is telling the miners' story to a gallery audience, a rotation of paintings flows across the three screens, competing for our eyes' attention and usually winning. In a play that can feel too much like a movie, this is one moment that's grounded firmly in the theater.