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Manhattan Theatre Club's "The Pitmen Painters" at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

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Manhattan Theatre Club
The Pitmen Painters
(The Pitmen Painters Website)

By Lee Hall

Lynn Meadow, Artistic Director
Barry Grove, Exec. Producer
By Special Arrangement with Bob Boyett

Directed by Max Roberts

At the
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street

Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly,
Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis, Deka Walmsley,
David Whitaker, Phillippa Wilson

Scenic and Costume Design: Gary McCann
Lighting Design: Douglas Kuhrt
Sound Design: Martin Hodgson
Production Stage Manager: Charles Means
Director of Casting: Nancy Piccione
General Manager: Florie Seery
Press: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Manager: Kurt Gardner
Assoc. Artistic Director: Mandy Greenfield
Director of Artistic Development: Jerry Patch
Director of Marketing: Debra Waxman-Pilla
Director of Development: Lynne Randall

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
October 3, 2010

As a former elementary school educator, who showed slides of French Impressionist art, among other art genres, to eight year-olds and took them to the Met Museum to observe the art first-hand and sketch, following up with giant child-created murals inspired by great art, I related acutely to The Pitmen Painters. This play is about a group of coal miners in 1934 Ashington, England, who were taught, transported, and trained by Robert Lyon (here, Ian Kelly), in the appreciation and exploration of fine art, preceded by and followed up by Renaissance art slides, visits to London museums, and group critiques. The miners, each with a unique story and personality, painted in class but mainly at home, and the comments and lectures by Mr. Lyon, then Master of Painting at Armstrong College, Newcastle, generated fractured egos and eloquent dialogues.

When the miners were surprised by a “life model”, Susan Parks (Lisa McGrillis), she could not have been more safe. The miners, mostly married, although often complaining about home life, were respectful, reticent, and restrained. Phillippa Wilson, in the lead female role, as Helen Sutherland, a wealthy aficionado of visual art, who sponsors unknown artists with talent, tries to woo Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel), a shy, laconic miner, with unique recognizable talent, who struggles with longstanding bonds in the Workers Educational Association. Ms. Sutherland implores Oliver to give up mining and become an artist, but his close-knit ties to his trade overwhelm his need to break out. Just so much worldliness can crack his habitual psyche, in spite of his stunning, philosophical monologues. A small cast of miners represents the larger, actual group.

The quality of the framed slides of the Pitmen Painters’ art works was bright, clear, and effective, thanks to Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting design. Gary McCann’s scenery, a dim mining office, where the lessons take place, has just the right coloring and spatial height for the easels, slides, and disputes to merge. Classroom morphs to museum space and back, as the miners evolve with expressive, aesthetic kinship. Max Roberts’ direction could have brought out more dynamism from the dialogues, stronger delineation of characters, as well as more riveting intonation, in the politically motivated arguments. However, The Pitmen Painters was an inspiring tale of self-education, determination, and an unflappable support system. Kudos to Lee Hall, and kudos to The Ashington Group.

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For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at