Monday, March 11, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Pit

Molly Lovell, Samantha Jones and Sarah Matteucci in PIT.  Photo by Chasi Annexy.

Melisa Annis’ name might not be familiar to you yet but, take it from me, it will be.  This young Welsh playwright has just burst on the scene with her first play, Pit, now enjoying its world premiere at Theater for the New City on First Avenue in Lower New York.  Produced by Longview Theater Company, Pit is a wonderfully textured tale of the struggles of the working class inhabitants of a Welsh coal mining town as they seek to come to terms with the consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s adamance in dealing with the striking coal miners’ demands.

Unsurprisingly, the play is politically correct (it is, after all, being staged at the Theater for the New City!), but it is not knee-jerk so.  The IRA shows up – but not as heroes.  The Communist Party has a role to play, too – but a very questionable one.  And while the playwright’s sympathies clearly are with the strikers, she does not dismiss anyone crossing a picket line out of hand.  In short, Ms Annis has expressed, in Pit, a thoughtful sensitivity to the nuances of everyday life, rather than allowing herself to get caught up in philosophical abstractions.

She has done this by interweaving several different stories into a complex tapestry of life in a small Welsh coal mining town in 1984.  And she is very fortunate in having an extremely talented cast of performers telling her tales.  George (Patrick Eichner) is the leader of the coal miner’s union and the driving force behind their strike.  Val (Samantha Jones), his wife of more than thirty years, is his lovingly devoted and staunchest supporter, leading the miners’ wives on the picket line. Mavis (Molly Lovell), Val’s sister and herself an unfortunate miner’s widow, is equally supportive of the miners’ strike.

But the strike has gone on longer than anyone had expected it to; the miners’ “dole” benefits have been exhausted; and Val, unbeknownst to George, has only been able to make ends meet by mortgaging their home and putting them deeply in debt, one possible solution to which might be for George to break ranks with the men he leads and return to work as a “scab” in order to salvage his family.  Meanwhile, Gareth (Michael Mraz), another of the town’s striking coal miners, has been sent off to negotiate alliances with other potentially supportive parties, one of which turns out to be the IRA.  And that relationship has at least the potential of entangling Gareth in an IRA terrorist plot.

While Gareth is away, his wife, Caitlin (Sarah Matteucci), meets Justin (Kurt Kelly), the student leader of the Communist Party (which is also supportive of the miners’ strike), and he prevails upon her to attend Communist Party meetings.  As matters develop, Justin’s interest in Caitlin is as much personal as polemical and when Gareth returns, all hell breaks loose.

The play’s action takes place in two venues – Val’s kitchen and the local pub – and the set has been well-designed to accommodate both.  The pub’s proprietor, a former coal miner himself is now so ill (presumably from some coal mining work-related disease), that the actual management of the pub has fallen on the shoulders of his misfit son, Huw (Jake Levitt). The regulars at the pub – George, Gareth, and Frank (Ted McGuinness) who is also Gareth’s father-in-law – are understandably disdainful of Huw, what with his Mohawk haircut, nose ring, and red trousers, and his general incompetence at even drawing a pint of “mild.”  And yet it is Huw who cuts through the townspeople’s agonizing over Communist dialectical materialism, IRA terrorism, labor relations, and all such talk to focus on the reality that what it all comes down to is putting bread on the table for one’s family, caring for the sick, fulfilling one’s obligations, and preserving the marital bond.
I think that even Margaret Thatcher would have approved.

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