Off Broadway Reviews
Eschewing the emotionally manipulative approach that too often accompanies plays based of factual events, Coal Country is all the stronger for allowing straight-talking authenticity to carry the load. The dialog is drawn directly from transcripts of court records and face-to-face interviews conducted by co-playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. The pair had previously taken a similar approach with their acclaimed The Exonerated, which recounted the stories of wrongfully convicted inmates. That process works here as well, thanks largely to a splendid cast who fully embody the characters, the appropriately unfussy direction by Ms. Blank, and the complementary infusion of original music written and performed by singer-songwriter and multiple Grammy Award winner Steve Earle.
The 90-minute play, performed without an intermission, begins in a courtroom, where the CEO of the mining company has been found guilty of conspiring to violate health and safety standards. The gathered members of the community are expecting to make impact statements prior to sentencing, but a legal technicality blocks them from speaking. Coal Country, then, is the forum through which their voices are finally allowed to be heard. And we are there to listen in fellowship to their disquieting recollections.
While the splendid cast members fully commit to being the conduits for the real-life characters they portray, as well as to their work as a tight-knit ensemble, I would be remiss if I neglected to name them. They are Melinda Tanner, Thomas Kopache, Michael Laurence, Michael Gaston, Amelia Campbell, Mary Bacon, Ezra Knight, and Deirdre Madigan.
Having Steve Earle on hand as musician is decidedly a bonus. While the songs he performs do not speak directly to the content of the play, they serve well in bringing out a strong sense of the community and, especially, of their deep roots in the region. The tunes are infused with the time-honored sounds of folk music, hymns, and songs of labor union solidarity (the audience is encouraged to join in on one of them) that hearken back to the days of Woody Guthrie. Apart from the pleasure of watching him perform, Earle provides a fitting backdrop to this original and compelling work.