The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII

Baker, Davidson, Egerton, & Wright 11

.], and people have grown sick of the false joy of the musical comedy that has been given them in place of the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality. In a good play every speech should be as fully flavored as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry. (xx) Cara Reichel, the Prospect Theater’s producing artistic director, grew up in Rome, Georgia, but it seems she has been a long time gone from home. So, in May of 2010, another musical set in Appalachia opened on West 42nd Street in New York at Playwright Horizons: The Burnt Part Boys. And this title is hard to pronounce; and I think it, sort of, affected the show in some odd ways. The book is by Mariana Elder, and the music is by the team of Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen. The play emerged from an intensive development process funded in part by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Edgerton Foundation for New American Play Awards. In 2014, as they were working on a musical theatre adaptation of Tuck Everlasting , Miller and Tysen also won the Fred Ebb prize, which awards $50,000 to theatrical songwriting teams who have not yet had significant commercial success. So, they’re still out there working. I haven’t heard the Tuck Everlasting score yet, though. Writing on the New York Times Arts Beat blog in 2009, Patrick Healy described the new show The Burnt Part Boys as “set in West Virginia in 1962, a coming-of-age story, centering on a group of teenagers whose fathers were killed ten years earlier in a coal-mining accident and their actions after they learn the mine will be reopened.” Funding sources for The Burnt Part Boys stressed its development in a regional non-profit theatre which would seem to suggest a potential synergy with a regional non-profit theatrical world of the southern mountains. However, from the beginning, The Burnt Part Boys seems likely to be about and not of Appalachia. I saw the show twice in New York, back to-back. I went to go and see it and to take notes. And while I came away pretty severely disappointed, I also then realized, “Oh, but there’s so much to talk about!” But it was not a fun two days. The play opens on a bare wooden stage with an illuminated backdrop showing a mountain’s silhouette, and all of the show’s set furniture is constructed from four large wooden ladders on wheels and some

wooden chairs. Throughout the performance these pieces are rearranged to create each setting. The musical revolves around two brothers, Pete and Jake, whose father has died in the 1952 explosion. Their mother, apparently like the other women affected by this tragedy, has become totally incapacitated by her grief and never appears onstage. The Disney-mother treatment of women in this show is worth a whole other essay, but I will spare you that today. I start ranting at that point. Jake has raised his younger brother, who is now fourteen and has recently begun his own career as a coal miner. As the show starts, Pete hears on the radio that the section of the mine in which his father died is about to be reopened. And Jake admits that he’s been offered a promotion to take part in that work. Pete wants the mine, his father’s tomb, to remain undisturbed. Here’s where things get weird. The “burnt part” of the title seems to be a literal tomb; the characters suggest that the miners’ bodies were never recovered, although grave markers have been set nearby. “The Company,” which is named for the town, makes vague promises draped with misery and atonement which have now been swept aside in the name of progress, or something. Pete and the other characters in the play seem amazingly uninterested in how the original accident happened, if they know at all. There’s no mention or awareness at all of ownership (absentee or otherwise) land rights, unions, or anything else that those of us in the region would expect to be there. The children, orphaned by the 1952 explosion, seem to live in a vacuum, relying only on themselves. The younger brother Pete is obsessed by his favorite movie, The Alamo , and, at different parts of the play, has dialogues with characters from that movie in his imagination. The actor who plays Davy Crockett also plays the ghost of Pete’s father later in the show, but The Alamo characters are more real to Pete than his memories of the father, who died when Pete was four. Additionally, I think the action of The Burnt Part Boys invokes Walt Disney’s own Davy Crockett project starring Fess Parker, which brought the frontiersmen legend to the attention of American children in 1954 and ‘55. A great PBS piece on Disney aired a few weeks ago and, sort of, recaptured the somewhat fanatical cultural moment of making Davy Crockett this obsession of American children. The older brother Jake and his friend Chet first appear onstage after a mining shift, drinking Schlitz

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