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Theater review by Raven Snook
Blue-collar folk ballads performed live by Steve Earle underscore Coal Country, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s devastating documentary play about the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 workers in rural West Virginia—and ripped an already unstable community apart. On a bare stage, the cast gives voice to seven men and women who lost loved ones in the blast, including two who came close to dying themselves. The play ramps up slowly as they describe their lives before the calamity and share background information about the coal industry; every once in a while, Earle sings a mood-enhancing tune, and he even gets the audience to join in on a union song.
Deep divisions of politics, wealth and power underlie the story. But Blank and Jensen, just as they did with former death-row inmates in The Exonerated and Iraqi refugees in Aftermath, compassionately channel true accounts of survival without editorializing, so nothing gets in the way of our empathy. Under Blank’s restrained direction, the performances are gorgeously authentic and underplayed. (Michael Gaston is a standout.) Even though you know what’s coming—the catastrophe was covered extensively in the media—the play’s intensely personal and detailed recollections of the disaster and its aftershocks are deeply affecting. It’s not just that people died that day because of corporate greed. It’s that their way of life is dying, too, and no one is coming to save them.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Music by Steve Earle. Directed by Blank. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.