Working in a Coal Mine

The Glace Bay Miners' Museum
Written by Wendy Lill. Directed by Margo Whitcomb. Presented by the Phoenix Arts Association. Starring Emily Ackerman, Jack O'Rourke, Linda Ayres-Frederick, Robert Elross, and Ian McConnel. At the Phoenix II Theater, 655 Geary (between Jones and Leavenworth), through July 18. Call 567-3005.

The Glace Bay Miners' Museum is a new play by Wendy Lill, who's also a member of Parliament in Canada, and the work's successful run in Vancouver led to this exchange on the Canadian assembly floor:

— Mr. Speaker, I hereby give notice that on a future day I shall move the adoption of the following resolution:

“Whereas the Glace Bay Miners' Museum, a play by NDP MP and playwright Wendy Lill, is running until Saturday at the Frederic Wood Theatre in Vancouver; and

“Whereas the play and its director, Kelly-Ruth Mercier, are getting rave reviews in Vancouver; and

“Whereas the Glace Bay Miners' Museum is a home-grown gem which presents a bitter-sweet picture of the life of coal miners and their families in Nova Scotia;

“Therefore be it resolved that the members of this House congratulate Wendy Lill and Kelly-Ruth Mercier on the success of their wonderful play in Vancouver.”

— Mr. Speaker, I request waiver.
— There has been a request for waiver.
— Is it agreed?
— I hear a No.
— The notice is tabled.
I found that on the Internet.

The play presents a bittersweet picture of the coal-mining life in Nova Scotia, sure enough, but putting it that way is a monumental understatement. The macabre “museum” assembled at the end of Miners' Museum works as a morbid Poe-style punch line tacked onto the end of an otherwise straight, realistic play. Giving more details would ruin the fun, but recognition for this show from the Canadian Parliament is only a little less surreal than a nod from Congress to, say, David Lynch for his portrait of small-town life in Blue Velvet.

Miners' Museum is a memory play narrated by an immodest, runny-nosed, Scot-accented woman named Maggie MacNeil. She's knock-kneed and funny — “I screwed a coupla boys when I little,” she tells us. “I di'n't know you weren't supposed to.” Her town, Glace Bay, sits on top of a rich coal bed in Cape Breton, and the only jobs for an average man are down the mine. Maggie's already lost a father and brother to the dangerous and underpaid work. She lives with her bitter mother, Catherine, a younger brother, Ian, and a wheelchair-bound grandfather whose lungs have been ruined by coal dust. Grandpa can't talk, but he does a lot of scribbling and sometimes honks a horn.

Into this hardscrabble life strides Neal Currie, a handsome young World War II veteran who spent only a few days in the mine before getting fired for mouthing off in “Ga'lic” (Gaelic). He plays the bagpipes and refuses to go down the mine ever again. Scottish culture's his thing, whether it pays or not. He's against the mining company's exploitation, but he's also against the union. All he wants is to be left in peace with his pipes. Maggie promptly falls in love, and soon enough they're married.

We know the play can't end well, but nothing in the long story of how Neil gets along with (and clashes with) Maggie's family, scorns (but finally signs up at) the mine, and resists (but finally joins) the union, suggests just how grotesquely things will turn out. Most of the show is a conventional but engaging kitchen-sink drama in the tradition of O'Casey or Synge. The acting makes it sing: Emily Ackerman, Jack O'Rourke, and Linda Ayres-Frederick all do flawless Scottish accents; everyone has been impressively cast. Ackerman, as Maggie, is so good at being flinty, sarcastic, and biting on the outside, especially with Neil (when we know she's jelly on the inside), that watching the story unfold without an ounce of romantic sweetness is almost heartbreaking.

O'Rourke makes an excellent Neil because he looks like a miner instead of an artist — like a romantic man doomed for the mine — and Ayres-Frederick slips into a convincing bitter-mom register that carries her beyond the roles I usually see her play. Robert Elross manages to invest the grandfather with character although he doesn't speak any lines; his work is all bushy-eyebrowed facial expressions and good comic timing. And Ian McConnel does a strong job as Maggie's brother, especially in his speech about “believin' in somethin',” after he's changed from a soft mama's boy into a mine-hardened union man.

The unobtrusive set consists of an old gas stove, crates for shelves, pans hung on the wooden walls, and a pitted dartboard. And the arguments and fights don't feel shoehorned into the story but rise naturally from the bickering and the dumb, affectionate family noise. The production, overall, is better than the ill-paced Helena Bonham Carter movie from three years ago, Margaret's Museum, based on the same story. It has more life. But it has the same problem at the end, of suddenly rushing through long stretches of time and channeling Maggie's pain into a single grotesque act that robs it of catharsis; the play gets stagy and relies too heavily on Maggie's narrating.

What saves the play as a concept is the fact that a Glace Bay Miners' Museum actually exists: Apparently, it's a very nice tourist attraction on Cape Breton Island. So the story amounts to a sick localized joke, a middle finger aimed at the tourism industry by Sheldon Currie, who wrote the original short novel and who looks old enough in a photograph to remember the mines.

The question is: Why would anyone in San Francisco want to stage a sick joke localized in Nova Scotia? And the only answer can be that it's being put on by the Phoenix Theater. With this show the Phoenix has officially moved into the little space on Geary that was once called the Jewel. Some theaters try to be topical or cutting-edge, but the Phoenix works on a weird frequency of its own, managing to pull good, unusual plays apparently out of nowhere. Miners' Museum is as strong as anything the old Phoenix did, and it has the same raffish, old-fashioned eccentricity.

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