The so-called “artistic process” is fairly indefinable to begin with, and thus it can be understandably difficult to persuasively capture or portray on stage or screen. Nonetheless, Theatrical Outfit’s luminous staging of the eloquent Lee Hall play, “The Pitmen Painters,” comes about as close to fine art as Atlanta theatergoers likely have seen in quite some time.
Not just seen, though, but rather experienced, as Hall's main characters might demur. Most of them are working-class coalminers in remote Great Britain during the 1930s, whose true story was originally told in a book by William Feaver. As the "Ashington group," the unassuming miners initially gathered for weekly art-appreciation classes and, for a time, they eventually became the toast of London high society as celebrated artists in their own right. (All of the paintings in the show are prints of the group's actual artwork.)
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As Hall recounts it, some of the men had never seen a painting in “real life” before, let alone ever heard of Raphael or da Vinci. But, in the process of their artistic education, they’re soon exchanging loftier thoughts about the beauty and power of art — not only as a means of reflecting or confronting the world at large but also as a way of reaching and even transforming people on a more personal, “internal” level.
Proper art should mean something, they learn. There's the technical proficiency of it, the "clarity of purpose" in its use of sociopolitical metaphors or Freudian symbolism, and then there's the "quality of expression" and how art makes one feel. In the end, these self-professed "pitmen" are gushing about Van Gogh and assessing contemporary British artists like Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson with the same enthusiasm as any high-brow art critic.
The dramatic comedy is passionately written by Hall ("Billy Elliot"). Still, what finally moves us on that internal level — as something greater than a lot of undeniably well-intentioned, brilliantly articulated talk about creativity and individuality — is the work of a unified ensemble of terrific performers in the Outfit production, whose fully realized characters seem like genuine people as opposed to theatrical mouthpieces, speaking to us instead of at us.
There isn’t a weak link or false note among them: Sam R. Ross as the ambitious teacher, who may have ulterior motives; Brian Kurlander as the “star pupil” of the group, who’s reluctant about taking life (and the future) into his own hands; Tess Malis Kincaid as the sophisticated art collector who tempts him; Allan Edwards, Andrew Benator, Richard Garner and Clifton Guterman as the other classmates; and, briefly, Caitlin Josephine Hargraves as a model.
Beyond that, moreover, under the captivating and compelling direction of Adam Koplan (the founding artistic director of Flying Carpet Theatre, who previously collaborated on the Outfit’s “The Dancing Handkerchief”), this “Pitmen Painters” is a marvelously crafted evocation of its particular time and place with a set designed by Lizz Dorsey, lighting and projections by Mike Post, costumes by Becca Long, and sound by Dan Bauman.
Koplan’s show truly practices what it preaches about the “innovation of the artist” and “cultivating a sense of discovery.” When, in the play’s final scene, Kurlander, Edwards, Benator and Garner — not one of whom is exactly renowned for his musical abilities — join voices to sing a traditional miners’ hymn called “Gresford,” you can really appreciate what these pitmen impart to us about art as a gift, something shared that ultimately belongs to everyone.
“The Pitmen Painters”
Runs through March 24.
7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (March 6 only); 7:30 p.m. Monday (March 18 only); 2:30 p.m. Saturday (March 23 only). $15-$55. Balzer Theater at Herren's, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500. theatricaloutfit.org.
Bottom line: Beautifully drawn.