Fire on the Mountain
Randal Myler & Dan Wheetman
With relatively few spoken words but instead with three dozen songs and several score of projected, vintage photographs, Fire on the Mountain tells a moving, powerful story of the Appalachian coal miner. The might of the media used in this timeline history that covers much of the twentieth century is felt in every minute of the ninety as large black-and-white, Dorthea-Lange-like images illustrate the lyrics being belted across the stage. We see in the faces, mountain scenes, and blaring headlines what we are also feeling in the bluegrass tunes that find roots in Celtic, country, gospel, early American, and spiritual music. These are songs and melodies with beats and notes that grab and do not let go. We experience viscerally what it must have meant to live to the mines six days a week before dawn until after sunset, to breathe and cough (and then die from) the black dust, to stand in water all day, or to be a young teen who grows into a prematurely old man wedded to the mines for life.
The photographs and the music are enhanced and brought to life by a cast of nine that looks and acts in every moment like they are of the poor, close-knit mining community. We see in their eyes, their wrinkled faces, their gingham dresses and worn-out overalls, and their often-labored steps lives full of hard work and struggle but also of dignity and devotion to friends and family. The knowing smiles, the intense listening and nodding, the sighs and shrugs of background cast members watching others who are singing a song are as much of the telling of this story as those in the spotlight of the moment. Kudos to Leslie Martinson for her casting brilliance, to Jill Bowers for such authentic yet simple costuming, and especially to Joe Ragey for a multi-level set that evokes outside a mining shaft, inside a shanty home, and the heart of the community in its meeting hall/church. And the excellent, tightly paced but never rushed direction of co-creator Randal Myler is what holds everything together.
The music certainly reigns and stimulates not only much audience emotion but also plentiful toe-tapping and even humming along. Each ensemble member is outstanding, with many both singing and playing an instrument native to these mountain and mining parts. Particularly stunning in authenticity of sound, look, and manner is Molly Andrews, herself a daughter of coal miners and a direct Mayflower descendent. All that history contributes to her soul-touching songs of the heart, delivered with head raised, closed eyes, and hands tightly clasped at her breast. There is nothing acted here. It feels and looks like we are there with her in West Virginia, Kentucky or Pennsylvania.
Equally powerful is the singing, string playing, and dancing of Tony Marcus and of David Lutken. Harvy Blanks teaches us by his presence on the stage and by his deeply moving songs rooted in Southern African American history that mining communities were integrated and that inside the mine, all skin was the same darkness. All other singers and musicians step forward to moments of excellence as they portray wives, miners, a son, and community members.
This is a history of heroes and villains as told by Messrs. Myler and Wheetman. Clearly, the heroes are the folks themselves, the men of mines and the women around them, who courageously keep moving forward in a life most of us could not fathom. Union organizers and strikers for health and safety purposes are given their due. The beautiful mountains, the wildlife, and the sense of real community and caring all also shine throughout. The big villains are the coal companies and their executives. One picture tells it all. A miner’s monthly pay stub details not only his meager overall salary but also how most of what was earned went back to the mining company itself in the company-owned town (for rent, medical, food, utilities, etc.). Any improvements to life, health, and safety are hard-fought through the decades; protests are usually met by armed guards and scab miners. The ultimate tragedy is seen in images and heard in mournful tunes as the coal companies rape and level the beautiful mountains in their final acts of strip mining. As mines shut permanently, communities are left still poor but now also terribly ugly and polluted.
While many of us may already know much of this story through past, newspaper headlines of our earlier lives, to see the history march across the stage in sight and sound from beginning to end (much like a life Ken Burns documentary) leaves impressions that will long be remembered. Once again, live theatre accomplishes what no other media can do in quite the same way in telling a story that we all really need to hear.
Rating: 5 E's