Oh, come all you young fellers, young and so fine
Seek not your fortune in the dark of the mine
It’ll form as a habit and seep in your soul
‘Til the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal.
— Johnny Cash, “Dark as a Dungeon”
Fort Worth — What is it about playwright/director Jonathan Fielding and the dark? His last foray at Amphibian Stage Productions (Fielding is a co-founder of the company), 2012’s The True History of Julia Pastrama…the Ugliest Woman in the World, played entirely in the dark. Now comes Northside Hollow (co-written with playwright Brenda Withers, author of the ‘Phibs sparkling 2015 outing The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote) which starts in the pitch-dark of a coal mine. Eventually the stage is lit, but only barely, by the fitful shadow-creating beams of miner’s headlamps worn by back-row audience members. Kudos to director Fielding and lighting designer Andrew Garvis for the imaginative idea and execution.
Happily, the light level is the only thing that’s dim about Northside Hollow, a tightly conceived work that premiered in 2015 at Massachusetts' Harbor Stage Company, co-founded by Fielding and Withers. The play's unpredictable, richly imagined dialogue breathes life into what could have been a static one-note situation: a miner trapped deep underground.
Gene (Jim Jorgensen) wakes—or becomes conscious—in total darkness. We wait with him, hearing his hammer crack on rock, listening (almost) to the sound of his heartbeat in the dark. (David Lanza’s sound design is more than a bit frightening.) There’s nothing but white noise on his walkie-talkie, so he calls out to fellow miners he hopes are nearby: “Hey, listen! If y’all get out of here before me…will you pick me up a burger?” A beat—we’re still in darkness—and he sobs. “Oh, God. Oh, my God.”
Now comes a beam of light and a voice, muffled at first, then a rope—attached to volunteer responder Marshall (Jordan Sobel), who drops down into Gene’s confined pocket of the mine.
And suddenly, the one-man show is a buddy movie. But of what kind, and to what end?
Gene is disoriented and scared, his ankle “broke” or at least badly injured. Marshall is made to order, just the guy he needs: calm, genial, quick with a joke or a comforting first-aid fix, even a miner’s prayer—whatever will help Gene through a moment of pain or despair. It isn’t hard to see how two men, not that far apart in age and from the same small part of the world, might bond quickly under these conditions. They share a love of high school football (though for rival teams), pretty girls, old cars—and, playing with the odd coincidences of life, they share a birthday too.
The rhythm of language and emotion in the play follows an erratic path—as scattered as the situation itself, metaphorically lying in pieces at the feet of these two men. Hope, anger, laughter, panic, sorrow: they’re all here in this small space (scenic designer Seancolin Hankins’ grim, faintly gleaming seam of coal overwhelms), and there seems neither rhyme nor reason to which words rise to the top in a given moment. Marshall tries to get Gene to concentrate on a riddle, teases him that his tapped-out Morse code “SOS” actually reads “OSO” (he has the dot/dash pattern wrong), and lets him know there’s a girl waiting for him “up there.” His wife, Marshall thinks. “My ex,” says Gene with a groan.
Jorgensen and Sobel turn in terrific performances. As Gene, Jorgensen (based in D.C. but remembered locally as the director of Dallas’ New Theatre Company in the ‘90s) is vital and intense, a man on the brink—of what, he and we don’t know. He’s a hardscrabble guy who’s spent much of a lifetime in the mines. (Costume designer Brittny Mahan’s overalls for Gene are so dark he almost seems part of the wall of coal; his face stands out in the darkness like a Caravaggio St. Mark.) He’s no saint but not a bad fellow; someone you could have a beer with. Gene’s life, not surprisingly, seems to be passing before his eyes in fragments: of a football fight song, a spring night spent camping near a stream, a boyhood day picking nuts, a wife he thinks “made a fool” of him.
Rescuer Marshall seems altogether practical and focused in the play’s first moments, and Sobel’s easygoing portrayal has the balance between regular-guy and savior just right. Marshall brings God into the equation, telling Gene it “doesn’t cost you a thing” to believe—and that God won’t mind you turning to him in a tight spot even if you’ve tended to ignore him in the past. “Isn’t God gonna know what I’m up to? That’s begging,” objects Gene.
“God loves beggars,” says Marshall with quiet certainty, adding that the Almighty “doesn’t work against you”—ever.
But even Marshall may have limits to his cool. Over the fast-paced 90 minutes of the play, as his puzzlement over not being able to “get a signal” from the top increases—and the narrow gap he climbed down starts to collapse on itself—Marshall begins to sound notes that parallel Gene’s thinking. “You’ve been down here a week…an hour….You’re 25, 41, 19….” And most ominously, “We’re down way too deep to get back.”
The play, in fact, begins to feel like a deep dive into self—a kind of sensory deprivation experiment (remember those?) that might produce anything from euphoria to hallucination. Slowly, we begin to wonder how much of this story we can take at face value. “I don’t know you, do I, man?” Gene asks Marshall, as he seems to float free among memories, regrets, and moments of both joy and rage.
The answer, like Marshall’s riddle, is a while in coming, but is worth the wait. Fielding and Withers have created characters and images that won’t easily be forgotten.