For more than a decade, Wellfleet-based Harbor Stage Company has been challenging audiences, its adventurous ethos underscored by a marketing tagline: “Theater by the sea that’s right on the edge.”
Now the troupe has come to Boston with “Northside Hollow,” written by Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers, two of the cofounders of Harbor Stage, where their play was first presented in 2015.
The current production, directed by Fielding and Withers at the BCA’s Plaza Black Box Theatre, reunites the two stars of that earlier production, Robert Kropf and Alex Pollock. (Kropf is the company’s artistic director, and is also one of its cofounders.)
Clocking in at a fast-moving 80 minutes, “Northside Hollow” proves to be a twisty, suspenseful, multilayered, and ultimately moving drama that holds out the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, even redemption.
The stage is steeped in shadow, mostly lit by half a dozen audience members who are wearing headlamps, coal-miner style. That is entirely in keeping with Harbor Stage’s DIY, all-in-the-family approach to theater. (At Saturday night’s performance, Withers was greeting patrons at the entrance to the Black Box.)
Kropf plays Gene, a miner in his early 40s who, in the aftermath of an explosion, is trapped at the bottom of a mine shaft. He has a severely injured ankle that makes it hard for him to move without agonizing pain.
Hope arrives in the form of Marshall (Pollock), a volunteer first responder who has somehow made it through collapsed tunnels on a rescue mission to save Gene. In response to Gene’s anxious questions, Marshall tells him, unconvincingly, that the other miners Gene had been working with made it out alive. Also nowhere to be found is Vincent, his team’s dog.
Matters steadily worsen. Marshall can’t seem to establish radio contact with the rescue team above ground. During a brief foray back into the tunnels, he finds that the path he intended to take is no longer passable.
We in the audience have a close-up view of the nightmare scenario Gene and Marshall are living through. We can literally see them sweat. Kropf and Pollock deliver sharply etched performances of two very different men, with disparate personalities. Gene is a stubborn and volatile guy, while Marshall is more laid-back, at least most of the time. They likely would not have been friends under different circumstances.
But now they’re caught inside the same crisis, and that kind of friction can give rise to confession or revelation.
The exchanges between Gene and Marshall are sometimes amicable. At one point they pray together to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners.
But their conversation often turns combative. Marshall forces Gene to consider the possibility that he caused the explosion by smoking cigarettes. Gene’s demeanor when he talks about his ex-wife suggests he hasn’t gotten over her.
Marshall harbors some understandable regrets; at one point he voices the wish he could rewind his day rather than “drive all the way [expletive] out here and climb down the middle of a broken mountain to chill with some stranger.”
Inevitably, questions of mortality and the existence of God crop up in “Northside Hollow.” Given the circumstances, how could they not?
But Fielding and Withers have smoothly integrated cosmic matters into their script without it seeming contrived or pretentious. Marshall frames belief as simply a matter of common sense, saying to Gene: “You don’t feel like someone’s listening to us? You don’t feel like someone’s watching?”
The more they talk, the more weird coincidences start to crop up. It turns out Marshall and Gene have the same birthday, and each of them experienced an identical mishap involving misplaced car keys on their most recent birthday. What, exactly, is going on?
No spoilers here. You’ll have to see “Northside Hollow” to find out. Which would be a good move for a whole host of reasons.
Written and directed by Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers. Presented by Harbor Stage Company. At Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Jan. 20. Tickets $25. www.bostontheatrescene.com