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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 7 months ago

Urbanite's 'Northside Hollow' forgoes clichés to create a strong character study

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A trapped miner endures a dark night of the soul in “Northside Hollow” at Urbanite Theatre.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Fire in the hole; a flash of light; the crash of a cave-in. So the play begins.

The play is Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers’ “Northside Hollow” at Urbanite Theatre. After that, you’re in the dark. Literally. For about three minutes.

Through the gloom, you start to hear tapping sounds, pitiful cries for help, and crackles of walkie-talkie static. The source is a solitary miner, trapped in a blocked passage with a broken leg. (“This is Gene. Can anybody hear me?”) His name is Gene (David H. Littleton).

Help (and light) arrives in the form of Marshall (Christopher Joel Onkena), a twenty-something volunteer. This overgrown Boy Scout risks his neck to climb down a compromised shaft, then tries to stay upbeat and professional. First, he field-splints Gene’s leg. Then, he attempts to distract Gene with light banter and a cryptic riddle. But Marshall’s walkie-talkie is also dead. He’s forced to leave Gene alone and go back for help. Before leaving, Marshall recites the miner’s prayer with Gene. Then he climbs out of sight — and promptly falls back down. The shaft is hopelessly blocked, and now Marshall’s stuck, too. After a flash of panic, the young man gets it together. Now what?

Now Gene and Marshall talk. They’ve got the time, and there’s nothing else to do.

Conversation circles, a dog chasing its tail. They talk of high school football rivalries; Gene’s ex-wife; the reason she left; her dreams in life; Gene’s dreams; the fate of the other miners; what caused the explosion; and did Gene spark it with an illegal cigarette break.

Chit-chat now feels like confession. Or last rites. Gene and Marshall are buried alive, after all. They might not get out alive. It’s the ideal time to think of last things.

So, the two men try to think. But they might not be thinking straight. With all the methane gas in the air, that’s a distinct possibility. What exactly is going on? Gene and Marshall couldn’t tell you.

Christopher Joel Onken plays the role of Marshall in "Northside Hollow." Courtesy photo

The characters’ confusion becomes yours. The play keeps you off balance, defies analysis, and never telegraphs its next move. The drama veers from stark naturalism to the magical-realist borders of the Twilight Zone. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s really taking place.

But any way you look at it, it’s a matter of life and death.

“Will Gene live or die?” is not the question. (See the show if you need to know.) This play is a character study; Gene’s the key character; “What is Gene made of?” is the key question. To find out, the playwrights stuck him in a hellhole and turned up the heat.

David H. Littleton digs down to the nitty-gritty of Gene’s true self. He delivers a strong portrayal of a 41-year-old man at the end of his tether—a gut-level, heart-and-soul performance. Expect no working class hero clichés or sermons on the evils of fossil fuels. His Gene is an individual, not a type. Christopher Joel Onken is appealing as Marshall, the would-be rescuer. His untroubled personality creates a weird mirror image to the damaged man he’s trying to rescue. Marshall’s the road not taken, which is what Gene would be, if he’d made the right choices. Unlike the wounded miner, Marshall is sunny, selfless and religious. Though he’s no fan of dying in a coal mine, either.

Truth to tell, Marshall is a type. He’s just too good to be true. In the mechanics of the story, he’s there to shine a light on Gene. Marshall’s soul is not the one the playwrights care about.

David H. Littleton plays the role of Gene in "Northside Hollow." Courtesy photo

“Northside Hollow” is an X-ray of Gene’s soul. Not always a pretty picture. At times, it’s as pretty as a black lung’s X-ray. But it’s an honest picture — and hard to look away from.

Director Summer Dawn Wallace draws you into the play’s dark vision. Action and dialog create a herky-jerky rhythm of clarity and confusion. Perhaps a hint of a mind’s struggle to hold onto consciousness.

Ryan Finzelber illuminates the characters with minimal lighting — just enough to see faces and important details, and that’s it. (A few back-row volunteers helped out with working miners’ helmets.)

Rick Cannon’s set design is unglamorously realistic. No weird expressionistic angles, aside from the pile of rubble. It’s what a coal mine looks like; nothing to write home about. Alison Gensmer’s costumes are equally believable. They look exactly like what you’d expect coal miners to wear.

The Urbanite team delivers a powerful performance on every level. The underlying material is also powerful, though a few scenes could shed a little more light on Gene’s dark night of the soul. But that’s a minor detail. (No pun intended. Honest.)

After seeing this play, you’ll forget about trivial stuff like bills, barking dogs and Presidential tweets. Like it or not, you’ll be thinking of last things. And that’s a good thing.

As the philosopher Jim Morrison once said …

Nobody gets out of here alive.

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