In pitch blackness we hear only the sounds of radio static, labored breathing, desperate banging against a wall, then a man’s guttural calling out of the chilling phrase, “Christ in the tomb!”
When the dim lights finally come up, we see him, dirty and disheveled, sprawled in the rubble of what appears to be a mining accident, surrounded by rocks and haphazardly strewn wooden beams. How long has he been there? Are there other survivors? Does anyone know he’s here? At a tense and swift (barely) 90 minutes without an intermission, “Northside Hollow,” the world premiere by Harbor Stage Company founding members Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers, is both mordantly funny and sorrowful, with a late plot twist that would not be out of place in a “Twilight Zone” episode.
That’s fitting, since there are few scenarios as nightmarish as being buried alive deep in a collapsed mine. Such unimaginable horror was what made the 2010 rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days so riveting (soon to be a major motion picture called “The 33,” due out in November). The apparent survivor in “Northside Hollow” is Gene, played by Harbor Stage artistic director Robert Kropf. He’s soon joined by Marshall (Alex Pollock) who drops down the mineshaft bearing water and not-very-convincing reassurances that Gene’s fellow miners have made it to safety. When we hear falling rocks in the distance (the show’s sound effects are terrific and terrifying) and Marshall’s radio begins to emit only static, we realize he’s no longer a rescuer but also trapped. Marshall and Gene have only each other. So they wait . . . for salvation? For God? For Godot?
Stuck in this dungeon, with no sign of help, their conversation includes small talk about Gene’s ex-wife and the odd fact that they share the same birthday. They pray together to St. Barbara, patron saint of miners. There’s gallows humor — Marshall accuses Gene of triggering the explosion by lighting a forbidden cigarette; Gene replies that if he’s going to die from poisoned air he’d rather it be self-inflicted and pleasurable. There is, as one might expect, talk of God. Gene is a skeptic: “He made ya the way ya are,” he says, adding the stunned revelation, “That’s going to work against me?” There’s the riddle that Marshall tells him — is it a tactic to keep Gene’s mind working or does the answer provide deeper meaning?
The lighting design for “Northside Hollow” cleverly utilizes members of the audience by having some wear miner’s hats affixed with bright headlamps. The illumination is eerie and effective, giving the show’s set design of gray rocks, wood, and dust an otherworldly cast. The intimacy of Harbor Stage accentuates the play’s intense, claustrophobic atmosphere.
The acting is first-rate with emotions running the gamut from anger and fear to the expression of old boyhood rivalries (Gene and Marshall both hail from the small town of Northside). But for such a grim scenario, “Northside Hollow” never wades into the maudlin or the sentimental. Even as the men’s talk turns to a meditation on mortality, it’s rooted in the earth rather than the cosmos. The surprises in “Northside Hollow” arrive suddenly, so the power of this production may fully hit later — not coincidentally, after one exits the darkness and steps, with relief, into the light.
Written and directed by Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers
Sets, Sara C. Walsh. Lights, Fred Uebele. Sound, Joe Kenehan
Presented by Harbor Stage Company, Wellfleet,
through Aug. 8
Tickets: $20, 508-349-6800, www.harborstage.org