It’s a supposed fact that simple, uneducated folks speak pure poetry when they think they’re going to die — especially when they are characters in a play. James McManus makes the point with some eloquence in the second act of “Underground,” in which four West Virginia coal miners trapped in a mine collapse write their final thoughts on a deck of playing cards. But without that defining event to focus their minds and juice their idiom in act one, characters are exposed in all their stereotypical banality — leaving the audience to feel trapped and in need of a deck of cards.
Play is said to be based in part on the Sago mine disaster of 2006, in which the irresponsible mining company raised false hopes in the community — and exposed the miners’ families to a national media frenzy — by callously circulating misinformation that the 13 trapped miners could survive for two days underground.
Now that might have made a powerful drama. But “Underground” acknowledges none of it, with scribe choosing to focus instead on one young miner, Bones McCarron (Doug Nyman), who has aspirations of becoming a country singer-composer. Bones is in love with a perky local girl named Mindy Lee (Marianna McClellan), herself an aspiring singer, and when they aren’t spooning in the moonlight, these cute kids dream of becoming the next June Carter and Johnny Cash.
Nyman acts his heart out as Bones but succeeds only in making him look like a misguided amateur who should confine his musical ambitions to the back porch. Although only slightly more convincing as a homespun singer, McClellan is measurably more successful at conveying Mindy Lee’s wholesome sweetness. Neither is well served, though, by the wobbly duets they’re supplied with — and they are actively undermined by the great Johnny-and-June songs playing loudly over the sound system.
The rest of act one is taken up with the family dynamics of the McCarron clan. Father Tracks (Phillip J. Cutrone) is a miner. So is big brother Duke (Jay Rohloff). And so were their ancestors, several of them victims of mining accidents like the one foretold here in numbing hints.
It’s the job of mother Lydia (Tina Alexis Allen) to pass on to Mindy Lee the philosophical stoicism of the women who wait at home, listening for the whistle that signals yet another disaster. Allen suffers with dignity, but her character is no less a stereotype for all her hard work, and despite all the hand-wringing, there’s little suspense and no rough poetry whatsoever in any scenes that take place above ground.
The big question that looms over act one is: would we be at all interested in any of these inarticulate and predictable people if we didn’t know some of them were doomed to die in act two? Unfortunately, the answer is as plain as the coal dust on everybody’s faces.