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The Pitmen Painters

Lee Hall's masterful new play digs deep

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At the height of her industry, Great Britain was hatched with railroad, choked with smoke and dissected by coal mines. We often forget that the world's grandest empire was also a labyrinth of brick and cobblestone, where millions of uneducated men labored in coal shafts and died of black lung.

The Pitmen Painters, by Lee Hall, honors these workers with a slice of arcana: In the 1930s, the "pitmen" of Ashington formed a group of amateur artists. Guided by instructor Robert Lyon, they painted portraits and landscapes, using their grim surroundings as source material. The club throve for 50 years, and its vast oeuvre documents a half-century of working-class life. Hall's 2007 play dramatizes the club's evolution from bland union men to soulful artists, and like those unschooled canvases, The Pitmen Painters is a masterpiece.

Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre presents a beautiful local-premiere production, as bitingly relevant to post-steel Pittsburgh as to post-coal Northumberland. What's remarkable about this Pitmen is how little it requires: The stage is set with tables, chairs, sawhorses and easels, nothing more. Artistic director Andrew S. Paul uses projectors to magnify each painting, but he relies most heavily on the actors.

Impersonating British coal miners is no small task. Their northern accent is a linguistic beast, and dialect coach Natalie Baker Shirer has trained the cast well. Meanwhile, each man falls into the rhythm of Depression-era civility: The play feels vintage, despite Hall's hindsight. When Oliver Kilbourn, the group's most promising artist, meets an heiress who promises to support him, his humility is almost too painful to watch. As Kilbourn, Simon Bradbury is both boyish and grizzled, a callused man who yearns to express himself.

Hall made his name with Billy Elliott, and Pitmen is similarly sweet, smart and helplessly painful. But what makes the script excellent, and this production so marvelous, is the way it illustrates the bond of hard labor. These men are ignorant, deprived, self-deprecating and rude, but they'd gladly die for each other. The performances feel authentic, especially in a space as intimate as the Henry Heymann Theatre. The brotherhood is palpable. These guys can really paint a picture.

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