Tina Alexis Allen, Phillip J. Cutrone, Larry Greenbush, Peter Iasillo Jr., Marianna McClellan, Doug Nyman, Jay Rohloff
Owen M. Smith
There’s little light to be find in James McManus’s latest play, Underground, currently playing at the Beckett Theatre. Much of the action transpires deep beneath the soil in a mineshaft (which the resident minors have dubbed “little China”), where hope is an afterthought and risking one’s life is the collateral danger attached to the men’s primary concern – providing for their families.
The primary focus of Underground is Bones McCarron, a wannabe country singer whose father, Tracks, has worked in the mines most of his life. While Bones and his fiance Mindy Lee dream of bringing their duet act to Nashville, the realities of both of their families’ situations set in and both are left delaying their escape from West Virginia.
In an instance of role reversal, Bones’s brother Duke soon finds himself trapped in the mine on an evening while Bones is playing a potentially life-changing gig, leaving Duke wheelchair-bound and beholden to Bones’s perpetual care. Through most of the second half, the drama revolves around Bones’s strained relationship with Duke, whose view of himself changes drastically once he’s pitied rather than truly seen by the folks in his community.
Though McManus’s play includes moments of excellent writing, particularly some stirring descriptions of the miners in the play’s later scenes (which, due to the story’s twist, can’t be described in more detail), the evening is ultimately overlong and lacking in any real dramatic push, relying in particular on too many monologues and too few heated arguments.
Though there are conflicts along the way – Bones’s desire to leave town and Duke’s desire to unburden his family – for much of the rest of the play, the characters find themselves trapped in tragic situations, leaving an audience to pity those in question rather than to experience the conflict of the situation (which is largely lacking).
Still and all, there are a handful of fine performances here, particularly Tina Alexis Allen as Bones’s mother Lydia, a rock in the face of family crisis, and Jay Rohloff as Duke, whose Duke is incredibly sympathetic in how he deals with his physical obstacles. The play’s scenes chronicling his disability are among the most moving and dramatically motivated.
One wonders, ultimately, what Jim McManus found inherently dramatic about the situations he chose to dramatize here. Though there are some squabbles between the characters, the play’s climactic event, though tragic, serves mainly as an opportunity for the playwright to expound on the tragedy of the situation rather than to show us why the situation deserves to be represented on-stage.
Survival is a universal want, to be sure, but there has to be something else driving a play beyond this basic drive. There has to be something standing between the characters, pushing them against one another. As it stands, Underground never quite digs itself out of the hole it’s created for itself. Its characters, though put-upon, don’t have enough dirt on one another