Coal miners’ plight tunefully addressed in ‘Fire on the Mountain’ 

click to enlarge From left, Molly Andrews, Marie Shell and Harvy Blanks appear in TheatreWorks’ production of the touching musical revue “Fire on the Mountain.” - COURTESY KEVIN BERNE
  • From left, Molly Andrews, Marie Shell and Harvy Blanks appear in TheatreWorks’ production of the touching musical revue “Fire on the Mountain.”
“Be careful today — be alive tomorrow,” reads a wooden sign hanging at an angle above the atmospherically cluttered and rustic set for “Fire on the Mountain” at TheatreWorks (set design, Joe Ragey).

Would that it were so easy for coal miners to avoid disaster.

In this tunefully buoyant and ultimately heartbreaking musical revue from 2007, by Randal Myler (who also directs) and Dan Wheetman, the plight of that most beleaguered segment of the American working class is dramatized through brief fragments of monologue transcribed from interviews the authors conducted with coal mining families in Appalachia. There also are big, archival slide projections of the people, the camps where they lived and the mines themselves, juxtaposed with sections of the stunning — and later, strip-mined to ruination — Blue Ridge Mountains.

Most importantly, the mining world is evoked through song.

More than three dozen old-timey folk songs (many derived from the Celtic tradition), labor songs (“Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?”), church hymns, ballads and blues-inflected laments tell musical tales of mining disasters, the ravages of black lung disease, the poverty that could compel 8-year-old boys to go to work in the mines, the horrifying exploitation by mining companies, the famous struggle in Harlan County, Kentucky between the miners’ union and the fat-cat bosses, the destruction of the land (“Oh Daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the green river where paradise lay?" "Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking ...”) and more.

With a cast nine performers in folksy overalls and print housedresses (Jill Bowers, costume designer), including four terrific musicians on banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin, “Fire on the Mountain” is likely to provoke not just laughter (coal miners, as represented onstage and in most of the photos, appear to be a remarkably cheery bunch, singing, smiling and clogging at church socials) and tears but also groans of sympathy.

Solos by actors Molly Andrews and Harvy Blanks are particularly soulful.

I’d have liked the acting to be a bit more subtle — the material is powerful enough without any onstage emoting — but that’s a quibble.

Don’t expect a story per se from “Fire on the Mountain,” or to necessarily learn anything new, but you won’t soon forget this alternately beautiful and bleak vision of the mining life.


Fire on the Mountain

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 26

Tickets: $19 to $74

Contact: (650) 463-1960,

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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