Anybody who has ever left a tough, close-knit, working-class community for a life as a painter, writer, musician, dancer or some other creative career is familiar with a couple of abiding truths. The arts can change your life — if you're lucky enough to have help and smart enough to grab your moment of escape. Alas, your exit won't necessarily be glorious. When you leave where you're from, a price is exacted from your soul. And those oh-so-desirable members of the chattering classes, with their salons, grants, parties, commissions, patronage, gossip, money and judgments? They'll get real old, real fast. They'll try to exploit you for themselves. In the end, you will have your art and yourself.
That dilemma, that trajectory, is pretty much the life's work of stage and screenwriter Lee Hall. In "Billy Elliot," his biggest international hit, a ballet-dancing kid finally wriggles away from the hell of a mining industry under assault by Margaret Thatcher but must still look back and see the rest of his family going down.
You might think of Hall's "The Pitmen Painters" as a kind of prequel to "Billy Elliot," sans the Elton John ballads, the choreography and, well, the kids. Based on the success of a group of Northumberland miners who, beginning when they hired a tutor in the mid-1930s, became famous painters known as the Ashington Group, "The Pitmen Painters" is a passionate, if intermittently preachy, exploration of the glories and pitfalls that result when strong working men collide with the art world and all its pomposities.
I first saw this smart, moving and strikingly thought-provoking play on Broadway in 2010 with its original British cast (it is a populist phenomenon in the U.K., as was "Billy Elliot"). On Saturday night, TimeLine Theatre opened the first homegrown U.S. staging: B.J. Jones' earnest, moving and unpretentious production will, I suspect, be a very big hit for this savvy and growing company, where more and more Chicagoans have come, with reason, to trust the power, truth and integrity of the work.
As was the case when it produced "The History Boys" (another British play that looks at art, class, work and education), TimeLine has huge advantages over the Broadway production — even though that cast mostly came from just a few miles from where the Ashington Group first picked up their brushes and started painting mine shafts, picks, coal seams and workers at once triumphantly muscular and bowed by the quotidian horrors of 48 hours a week underground. Granted, the Brits got the north-country humor and irreverence more fully, but TimeLine has Chicago-style intimacy and its ensemble tradition.
And those are trump cards. Everything the Ashington Group did — whether down in the pit or taking classes in their hut — was in close communal quarters. They are better understood when you feel like you are right there with them. Otherwise you would not be able to appreciate so fully the extraordinary performance on offer here from Dan Waller, who plays Oliver Kilbourn, the most restless and talented of the miners, and the one who stands most explicitly on that risky brink of opportunity and collapse. In a performance both beautiful and blistering, Waller reveals a gifted, uncertain man who comes to understand that boundary-crossers can get stuck on the electric fence, absorbing the shock for those who follow.
Hall certainly packs a lot into his play. As well as offering an indictment of how prewar British society, in mostly restricting arts education to the privileged, ignored the talents of its working class, Hall wants to explore everything from the collapse of democratic British socialism to the unusual collective identity of the Ashington Group, the members of which became artists at once. This wasn't just one talented guy — it was a group. So does that mean anyone can be an artist?
That's far from all. "Pitmen" also looks at the relationship between talent and technique, patronage and exploitation (it is, the play argues, a very fine line), responsibility to community and to one's individual success. It lampoons the condescensions of arts-loving do-gooders — the superbly cast Andrew Carter, who plays the teacher Robert Lyon, cleverly explores how the pull of self-interest only results in more self-loathing — and it celebrates the enviable dignity of men who knew they worked on something tangible for a living and did so as a team.
"The Pitmen Painters" is, for sure, a sentimental and occasionally preachy play. But thanks to the simple design of Timothy Mann, and the actors William Dick, Jordan Brown (who has one eye-popping scene, when his character announces how and why he is leaving), James Houton and Steven Pringle, you feel like you come to know these miners. Jones does not fully capture the comic rhythm of the first-act finale (involving a nude model, played with depth by Amanda Schaar), and some of the stuff involving the patron Helen Southerland (Loretta Rezos) and her relationship with the miners does not probe as deep as it might.
But those are minor complaints. This is the kind of play Chicago, and TimeLine, can do very well. I'll wager you'll leave wondering what might be inside you, and, I'll wager more, fearful of what might happen if you decide to let it out.
When: Through Dec. 4
Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $32-$42 at 773-281-8463 or timelinetheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye