Chicago, Tuesday, September 13, 2011. It was 1934 in a small mining village in Northern England when a group of hardscrabble working class men, who toiled unimaginable hours for what was barely a living wage, hired a tutor. They used funds from the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) for an evening art appreciation class after a having had recently finished a stint studying evolution. The upshot of the worker’s art appreciation class is the focus of the amazing true story of The Pitmen Painters that resulted in the forming of The Ashington Group–a group whose paintings became celebrated from Northumberland to London, to Germany, the Netherlands and even China. Throughout its active life from the mid-thirties to the early 1970’s, The Ashington Group asserted its independence, defied categorization, and refused to fit theories or conform to expectations.
Heralded in London and on Broadway, The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall, the Tony Award-winning writer of Billy Elliot, takes a deeply moving and timely look at art, class and politics. The Chicago premiere of The Pitman Painters opened Saturday at TimeLine Theatre under the watchful eye of director BJ Jones of Northlight Theater, who formed a personal connection to mine workers while in college during a summer job in 1969 when he joined the United Mine Workers. The entire Chicago package from the set, the direction, and the cast is outstanding.
The TimeLine production moves along, aided by two large projection screens in the upper corners of the set. The audience is able to view the art as the men critique themselves and each other. These working-class men were able to express themselves in wonderful ways that no one, from a trained art background, could truly understand.
As the story unfolds, we watch them grow and gain confidence with a new world opening before their eyes. The humanistic portrayal of these men is a mix of humor laced with sensitivity. Laughs are created, not by poking fun at the miners lack of education or their misunderstanding of words, but with genuine emotion and the awareness that an absence of formal education has nothing to do with intelligence and the desire to learn. At the same time, the Pitmen Painters did not cut themselves off from the rest of the world of art. They visited museums, learned about the famous artists, and remained honest with their opinions and criticisms.
The most widely known and lauded of the Ashington artists, Oliver Kilbourn was passionately portrayed by Dan Waller who makes his TimeLine debut in The Pitmen Painters with a breakout performance that may just have Jeff award written all over it. The extraordinary cast of talented actors powering the story also includes: Andrew Carter, who you may remember from his role as David Frost in TimeLine Theatre’s 2010 FROST/NIXON (The History Boys and others) as teacher Robert Lyon, who balances his character managing to be both charming and opportunist; actor William Dick is believable and likable with just the right touch of droll humor as George Brown; Jordan Brown who plays Young Lad, a composite of young actors who were part of the Ashington Group, is a hilarious contrast to his teetotaling elders; James Houton as Harry Wilson, the dental mechanic who was gassed in WWI and Steven Pringle, as Jimmy Floyd fit the mold beautifully with their realistic depiction of the characters they play. In stark contrast to the the dedicated and naive miners is Amanda Schaar as Susan Parks who disrobes for a life drawing class as the google-eyed miners gape in disbelief. Art patron Helen Southerland, portrayed by Loretta Rezos does her character justice exhibiting the class divisions between the working poor and the upper crust with nary a crumb to spare.
Tickets to The Pitmen Painters are $32 (Wednesday through Firday) or $42 (Saturday and Sunday. Student discounts and group rates are available. 615 W. Wellington Avenue, (773) 281 8463 ext. 6. Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission. The show runs through December 4, 2011.