THE PITMEN PAINTERS

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Jacksonville’s The 5 and Dime Theatre Company, in partnership with The Cummer Museum of Arts & Gardens, presents Lee Hall’s humorous and moving “The Pitmen Painters”. It will be performed at the museum through August 4. For more information and reservations visit The5andDime.org.
Jacksonville’s newest theater company has, in less than two years, brought a number of interesting and provocative plays to local audiences. This nomadic company, with no permanent home, has resourcefully found venues within the city core for their productions.
The title of the play refers to a group of men working in the pits in the coal mines in Ashington, England, who took an art appreciation class sponsored by the Worker’s Educational Association in 1934. Professor Robert Lyon, gifted and intelligent, and masterfully played by JOSH WALLER, was assigned as their instructor. The miners quickly learned that they did not want to learn about art history, but rather, wanted to know what art is really about and what a painting means. Lyon hit upon the idea that they might learn best by creating art themselves and thus the Pitmen Painters were launched.
The individual members of the group of five men proved to be remarkably creative, so much so that they caught the attention of collectors and in 1938 had their first exhibition. Into the picture comes a rich attractive heiress, Mrs. Sutherland, portrayed by TRACY OLIN, who apparently not only collects works of art but also collects painters. We meet one young painter in her stable, Ben Nicholson (MATT TOMPKINS), who receives a salary from his benefactor for just painting. This wealthy patron also takes a shine to Oliver Kilbourn, the most promising of the miners, sensitively portrayed by KENNY LOGSDON. Kilbourn is offered a salary, one considerably more than he makes in the mines, to paint full time. After much deliberation he declines, because of ties of loyalty to his miner friends. As a side note, Kilbourn retired from the mines in 1968 but continued as a prolific painter during the 1970s. He passed away in 1993 at the age of 89.
Theatre is meant to take its audience on a journey. Under the sensitive and perceptive direction of STACI GRANT and LEE HAMBY this production abounds in skillful performances, introducing us to interesting and colorful characters who make this play richly and thoroughly entertaining.
George Brown (RICHARD DESPAIN), the oldest of the miners, is the leader of the group and always goes by the rules. Jimmy Floyd (THOMAS TRAUGER) is the least educated, but has a unique sense of humor. Harry Wilson (DAVID GILE) is a dental technician who really wanted to study economics, not art, but had no instructor available. Young Lad (BROOKS STUDIER), the youngest of the group, is unemployed and uninhibited in his comments about art.
Much of the humor is generated from the comments the artists make about each other’s work, which often include good-natured arguments. The funniest scene occurs when the professor brings a very attractive young lady played by KRISTEN WALSH to class to pose as a nude model. The older miners are up in arms, while the younger ones seem to think it is a good idea. Does she pose nude? We’ll never tell, see the show.
One thing that Directors Grant and Hamby agreed upon was that authenticity in dialogue was necessary. The miners came from a region of England near Newcastle where a pronounced regional dialect is spoken. The directors had the services of PAULINE RICHARDS, who is from Newcastle, who coached the cast in this dialect. To make it easy for the audience, a glossary of thirty words is included in the program; you will learn ‘down’ is pronounced ‘doon’, and ‘house’ is ‘hoose’. The 5 & Dime’s production is probably more accurate than many stage productions. We checked out one youtube excerpt from a professional company and found the character Oliver used a standard British accent, rather than a dialect.
BRIAN GRANT AND MICHAEL SCHNEPT built the Lee Hamby designed set, which consisted of a large wooden stage with wooden walls, giving the appearance of a storage room. Chairs and easels were the extent of the furniture. (The painters were, after all , poorly paid miners).
Copies of the actual paintings done by the miners were put on easels as they were discussed and Stage Manager ZACHARY RAGLAND projected them on a large screen up over center stage. It was an excellent way for the audience to view these amazing works.
The 1930s costume design was by Lee Hamby and Tracy Olin, and included subdued clothes – jackets, vests, and ties – for the men, and somewhat ostentatious gowns and furs for Mrs. Sutherland.
Also of note was the museum setting, in a spacious gallery, with chairs arranged to provide open sight lines. Ample parking was available in the Cummer’s recently refurbished parking lot. Patrons were free to view exhibits in the museum for an hour prior to the beginning of the play, and interesting refreshments were available. The seating was very comfortable, and we are hoping to see further collaborations between the 5 & Dime and the Cummer.
The cast was picture perfect and could not have been more versatile and appealing; their timing was impeccable. This is a production of masterful detail which requires no retouching. This is theatre in the best sense, moving, funny, human and genuine. There are plays that set the wheels of thought spinning, and this is one. It is not to be missed.

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