Starring Molly Andrews, Mark Baczynski, “Mississippi” Charles Bevel, Margaret Bowman, Jason Edwards, A.J. Glaser, Lee Morgan, Mike Regan and Ed Snodderly. Directed by Randal Myler. Written by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman. Presented by Actors Theatre of Louisville. Continues through Sept. 22 at ATL, 316 W. Main St. For tickets, call 584-1205 or visit www.actorstheatre.org.
Randal Myler’s “Fire on the Mountain,” although set in a montage of past decades, couldn’t be more trenchant to the present time.
This music-heavy production about the plight of rural coal miners comes to Louisville on the heels of the recent mine collapse in Utah, in which a group of miners remain abandoned underground because of the high risk of further rescue attempts. This current news story was no doubt on the minds of everyone in the audience, and likely added extra gravity to the way the actors conducted themselves.
The subject’s relevance to Kentucky is still deep: Coal mining operations are still going strong here and in neighboring states, with great ramifications for anyone unfortunate enough to be associated with it. That is not to mention the environmental issues.
“Fire on the Mountain” isn’t so much a play as it is a concert in which the musicians are in character as a group of downtrodden Appalachian miners who appear with their extended family. Most of the songs seem to be a collection of the earliest, archetypal obscure folk versions of later well-known songs (public domain songs, of course), something that wasn’t made clear in the program. Thus, audience members more familiar with the Merle Travis version of “Nine Pound Hammer (Roll On Buddy)” or Rose Maddox’s classic “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again” may be curious about these different versions.
The ensemble, though not uniformly convincing as down-home rural folk, are uniformly talented as musicians. And they display their talents well. Molly Andrews’ voice is perfect — almost too perfect — and she brings a refreshing zaftig appeal to the show as the female lead. “Mississippi” Charles Bevel’s pre-war blues numbers are impeccable. When he stands up to exhort the crowd in a Son House-like chanting of “We Done Quit” (a variant of the old gospel song “Yes He Did”), you might forget you are watching a show and find yourself ready to march with the angry mob to the straw boss’s office.
Ed Snodderly, who invokes country comedian Rod Brasfield in his ill-fitting gray suit and disheveled hair, provides subtle comedic foil and is a whiz on the mandolin and dobro. Mike Regan as the gruff but lovable miner brings a humorous touch to the weighty material, such as when he says, “You wanna hear somethin’ really crazy? I love the mine. It’s as addictive as cigarettes, but harder on your lungs.”
In the final analysis, “Fire on the Mountain” can’t hold a miner’s lamp to Tennessee Williams’ “Candles to the Sun,” a serious play about the plight of coal miners. (Last year, the New Mummer Group Theatre Collective, a New York-based company that has members from Kentucky, staged the play at Actors’ Theatre.) While “Fire” is thoroughly enjoyable and will have you tapping your toes, I felt uncomfortable knowing people are spending up to $58 to observe the hardship and suffering of poor Appalachian people, but as entertainment.
BY SHERRY DEATRICK