The thud of tools biting into rock. Dripping noises, suggestive of dank, subterranean spaces. Early in director Stevie Zimmerman’s lively and absorbing production of “The Pitmen Painters,” a few shrewd sound cues evoke the dangerous business of coal mining — the profession of the principal characters in Lee Hall’s 2007 play.
The fleeting soundscape contrasts incisively with the visuals that predominate the show, 1st Stage’s season opener. An easel stands on one side of a paint-spattered floor; a rear wall resembles empty picture frames stitched together. This space initially represents the room where members of an English mining community gather for an art appreciation class in 1934. Before long, these working stiffs will constitute the core of the Ashington Group, a circle of English miners who — true story — became serious painters, maintaining their day jobs in the pits while earning critical acclaim for their art.
Hall’s play follows the group from 1934 through 1948, chronicling the miners’ camaraderie and bickering, their uneasy relationship with the art establishment, and their creative epiphanies. He also shows them displaying an unexpected flair for a kind of conceptual mining: the extraction of significance from works of art. “The meaning is not in the objective world,” a hard-bitten pitman named Oliver Kilbourn (Dylan Myers) muses as he gazes at a white-on-white geometric composition displayed at a patron’s house. “The meaning is an internal thing.”
The terse mystique of Myers’s quiet, pursed-lipped Oliver is one of the chief assets of this production, which clips along at a satisfying pace while allowing the play’s intellectual concerns to resonate. Hall is better known as the screenwriter of the movie “Billy Elliot” and the book writer/lyricist for “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” “The Pitmen Painters” shares with those works a focus on class, group and individual identity, the political dimensions of artistic and professional choices, and the way vision and tradition interact with the creative drive.
Fortunately, those themes rub shoulders here with considerable humor, some of it rooted in moments of culture clash — “Bless you!” a miner responds after hearing an art expert refer to Titian in the play’s first scene — and some of it flowing from the miners’ idiosyncratic personalities. In this production, billed as the play’s area premiere, Alden Michels is particularly funny as George Brown, a union bureaucrat who grows agitated over matters like whether the art appreciation class can run an extension cord from the Boy Scouts’ meeting room next door. (“For a start, we’d have to get written permission!” Michels’s solemnly excitable George sputters.)
Not all the performers fuse with their roles as seamlessly as Myers and Michels do. But Matt Dewberry is an energetic, well-defined presence as Robert Lyon, who is the Ashington Group’s art instructor and, later, champion. Jason Tamborini is entertaining as a down-to-earth miner named Jimmy Floyd, whose idea of a war-themed painting — a challenge the group tackles in 1939 — is an abstract blob. “This is preparations for battle in the form of a blob,” he explains doggedly to his skeptical peers.
In other turns, James Miller portrays Harry Wilson, a fervently socialist mechanic; Ryan Alan Jones is poised and likable as an unemployed adolescent; and MiRan Powell is adequately posh as the rich art patron Helen Sutherland. Designers Steven Royal and Bradley Porter devised the set and sound, respectively.
The actors portraying miners do a creditable — i.e., largely consistent and non-distracting — job with a north-of-Newcastle accent. (Alexander Strain is the dialect coach.) And, thanks to projections designer Tewodross (Teo) Melchishua, the production benefits from beautiful representations of the artworks that the characters discuss.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Lee Hall. Directed by Stevie Zimmerman; lighting, Kristin Thompson; costumes, Katie Touart; props, Cindy Landrum Jacobs. With Stephanie Schmalzle. Two hours and 15 minutes. Through Oct. 13 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner. Visit www.1ststagetysons.org or call 703-854-1856.