Taking Their Lumps

Fire on the Mountain evokes the musical soul of Appalachian miners.

Fire on the Mountain is an evocation of the lives of Appalachian coal miners in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Created for the Denver Center by Dan Wheetman and Randal Myler, who also directs, it is told primarily through song, with snatches of dialogue and narrative taken from interviews, diaries and news stories. The eight astonishingly talented actor-musicians in the cast perform a range of music, from lyrical folk ballads through country tunes, blues laments and romping, stomping hillbilly bluegrass. They sing and play -- as needed -- fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and harmonica. Several of them play more than one instrument. As the actors perform their intricate and passionate harmonies, the men and women whose stories they're telling gaze at us from old photographs projected on two lighted screens.

The lives of the miners were harsh. They labored in the dark from sunup to after sundown in cramped and dangerous conditions. Mining disasters were frequent. Men were choked by fumes, blown to pieces, engulfed in flame or trapped underground to suffer slow, hopeless deaths. Aboveground, they lived in grinding poverty, forced to buy provisions at company-owned stores that charged more than other retailers and controlled both goods distribution and customers' lives. And yet, in an odd way, some of these men loved the work they did. They were fiercely proud of their independence; they loved and identified with the Appalachian Mountains. Fire on the Mountain shows us a young boy (Daniel E. James) who can't wait to go to work in the mines and begin his progression through the ranks to full-fledged miner. We also see the sick old men, suffering from black-lung disease and with nothing to leave their children, lamenting the lives they have spent essentially digging their own graves. We hear about hungry babies and wives who can never be sure that their husbands will return to them at night. And we also learn that an acute and constant sense of one's own mortality makes life not only bitter, but also vivid and sweet.

The play tells us stories about farmers selling their land for the princely sum of 25 cents an acre and then going to work in the mines. It describes the tragedies, the strikes, the Pyrrhic victory that forced management concessions but ultimately led to the company's abandoning traditional methods of coal extraction in favor of strip mining. As a result, workers lost their jobs; the landscape was devastated; the water turned toxic and black.

"Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Dan Wheetman and Ed 
Snodderly in Fire on the Mountain.
Terry Shapiro
"Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Dan Wheetman and Ed Snodderly in Fire on the Mountain.

Details

Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 30. 303-893- 4100, www.denvercenter.org

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And yet, even under these circumstances -- perhaps particularly under these circumstances -- people sing. There's a style of singing specific to the region, nasal, drawn out; it resonates in the head. It's exemplified in the work of traditional singer Molly Andrews, who performs with wrenching feeling.

This was a culture of music that preceded the advent of radio and television in people's houses. Everyone played an instrument -- or several. People passed the time singing and dancing. The music began with the Irish and Scottish immigrants who had fled the famine in their own countries in the 1840s. It was flavored by the traditions brought to the area by black miners -- there was no discrimination in mining country, one character tells us, because "our faces all look the same at the end of the day." And then, due to the relative isolation of the area, the music followed its own path. There are ballads in Fire that simply tell the story of a personal setback or heartbreak. There's a heart-chilling song about the tin of morphine many miners carried in case they got trapped. And there are also joyous songs of celebration, humorous songs such as "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again," haunting ballads like "Sweet as the Flowers in Maytime," and stirring songs of defiance.

The two scenes in which actors speak directly to each other -- a son asks his mother to leave Appalachia with him; a father urges his son, "Don't follow me to the coal mine" -- are flat and sentimental. The communication is far richer when it's carried in the ever-changing vocal and instrumental patterns made by the performers singing together.

Each member of the Firecast brings a distinct and welcome persona -- humorous "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Margaret Bowman as a tough and grounded Mama, Ed Snodderly with his intensely personal musicianship, the warmly solid Mike Regan, the multi-skilled Dan Wheetman, and David M. Lutken, who exudes energy and charm. Vicki Smith is responsible for the subtly expressive set and Don Darnutzer for the warm, sepia-toned lighting.

Perhaps the photographs -- the young boy with the holes in the knees of his pants, the three clear-eyed black children -- might seem more picturesque than urgent these days. The Denver Center's teaching handout assures us that coal mining is now one of the safest industries in America (although, since it killed some thirty workers in 2004, you have to wonder about the others). But the particular children we see in the photographs were forever lost to the mines, and many contemporary workers -- in this country, or in U.S.-owned businesses overseas -- suffer lives of equal privation. Fire on the Mountainconcludes with triumphal singing, but I couldn't help feeling an edge of sadness as I listened, thinking about the current assault by government on poor and working-class people. Those haunted children are with us still.

 
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