FST’s Fire on the Mountain burns brightly.
By Kay Kipling
It may seem like a long way from the coal mines of Kentucky or Tennessee to the streets of downtown Sarasota, but Florida Studio Theatre’s production of Fire on the Mountain brings it all home to its audiences.
By “it” I mean the lives and times of coal miners as recounted in their own words and songs, pieced together in compelling fashion by co-creators Randal Myler (who also directs) and Dan Wheetman (who doubles as musical director). Myler and Wheetman spent a lot of time interviewing miners and researching their music, lending authenticity to a show that could have been full of high-minded, fine-sounding platitudes.
Instead, Fire on the Mountain is as down to earth as the miners themselves. We hear true stories of going to work in the mines as early as the age of eight, of the ravages of black lung disease, of union strikes and the depredation of what was once beautiful land. But it’s not handled in a preachy way; it’s just matter-of-fact. And pride, strength and humor mix with the inevitable pathos of the miners’ and their families’ lives.
Chances are you’ll be familiar with some of the music (Fire in the Hole, Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train, Which Side Are You On?) but you’ll also hear less familiar tunes, ranging in style from bluegrass to blues to “old-time” music. Among the highlights: Ron Barnes on Been in the Storm So Long, encapsulating the African-American miner’s experience; a rousing church-based number performed by the ensemble cast; and any time Jason Edwards steps forward with his guitar or Molly Andrews raises her voice a cappella, singing (as the others do) without affectation and in the nasal tones of Appalachia.
That ensemble cast is uniformly well chosen. Some have been chosen primarily for their acting skills, others for their musical talents (the performers onstage are the band as well), but all are effective in conveying the physical and emotional aspects of their characters. And the black and white images projected on both sides of the stage, of actual people, places and equipment tied to the mining world, are frequently haunting and evocative.
Fire on the Mountain, which runs 85 minutes without intermission, is simple and forthright in its approach, as befitting the people it portrays. But it’s no less involving for that. The show continues on FST’s mainstage through Dec. 1; call 366-9000 for tickets.