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Beneath Springhill brings terror, truth and joy to Theatre Orangeville




By Constance Scrafield

The stage is all in darkness, with the lighting so skillfully crafted that the depths seem real and we are almost in a dream. Yet, not a dream but the reality of a mining crisis that left the seven men in the story of Beneath Springhill to wait for nine days and hope and pray for rescue from the trap of the mine's failing, at 13,000 feet down. This powerful story of Maurice Ruddick, the survival of the miners and absolute loyalty of his family is told entirely in a solo performance starring Jeremiah Sparks. Beneath Springhill by Beau Dixon and directed by Bobby Garcia is on now at Theatre Orangeville and running until February 26.

The story starts off brightly enough by Mr. Sparks bringing forth his little daughter, a fellow miner and his wife. He speaks humorously about a lady neighbour who does not wish to speak to him. Within a few buoyant moments, Maurice encapsulates his life and the lives of the other miners as they prepare to descend into No. 2 mine Springhill.

He sings to us in those early moments, playing his guitar, reassuring us that he is well and all is well. Then, he and the others make the long journey, down, down on that rattling, strange conveyance to the deepest corner of the Springhill mine where they work, shovelling to extend the shaft and digging for coal to be hauled up the to the fresh air and sunlight.

Break time comes for a sandwich – Maurice's favourite honey and banana - “Did you ever see such a fine sandwich?” he asks a colleague.

As the old miner, he tells Maurice they are all friends down there; it's a matter of family down there; up on the grass, it might be different – that is just the way it is. Maurice understands it is so and forgives.

With such excellent sound effects that are the glue to the success of the show's believability, that haul us into the terror with Maurice and the others, the mine overhead rumbles and screams and bit by bit, all of us are in the midst of it.

Sit back and hang on.

We saw the show on the Sunday matinee this week and listened to the gasp the audience gave, as collectively we suffered while the mine collapsed. Bearing the reactions of each and every man in that fearful place, Jeremiah Sparks held our attention, unshakable as we weathered these days with them.

Music is a strong element of the show. Mr. Sparks is a fine singer and music is a large part of his life. Born in Nova Scotia, he eventually came to Toronto, as an actor. He was very thrilled to take Beneath Springhill back to Nova Scotia to perform it in the Neptune Theatre, Halifax. This is a one -man show of many characters and Jeremiah Sparks does a masterful job of the quick changes such a multi-role performance demands. This is the experience of several characters, the mixture of being down in the mine with the men and the news reporter who updates the information about the situation for CBC Radio. We are hearing the reports, feeling the urgency to save, keeping pace with the time above and below.

“I like writing about the ugliness of the world and finding beauty in it,” playwright Beau Dixon was quoted in an interview with the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. He has won several awards as an actor, musician, playwright, music director and sound designer and is based in Ontario, Canada. He co-founded and is artistic director for Firebrand Theatre, a Canadian educational theatre company. Mr. Dixon is the artistic associate for 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, Ontario. Currently, he is also the music director for Sheridan College, Lakefield College School and Stratford Festival. 

Director of Theatre Orangeville's production of Beneath Springhill, Bobby Garcia has directed over 50 plays in Canada and in Asia, where he has been very involved and influential in theatre and live entertainment, producing and performing in a very long list of shows. He founded one of Asia's most prolific and successful theatre companies, Atlantis Productions/ Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group in 1999. (website) 

Perhaps, Theatre Orangeville audiences are spoiled by the tremendous sets, lighting, sound, costumes of each production and the standards keep that bar high for Beneath Springhill. With over 15 productions of lighting designs for Theatre Orangeville, Louise Guinand brings sensitivity and intensely dramatic atmosphere to the story, giving light into the impenetrable dark and fear. 

Combining those elements with Malcolm Dow, working out of Vancouver, B.C., who has won awards for his compositions and sound designing, his use of percussion and (almost) musical sounds certainly grind the dangers into our attention and give Jeremiah Sparks so much of what he needs to carry the saga. 

Coming from a visit to Springhill itself, set designer, Beckie Morris adapted the original set made in Vancouver, to a perfect balance between the standard platform where the miners worked daily and the darkness they met when their lamps went out. 

Said Jeremiah Sparks, “This is a piece of our Canadian history; a time to remember what we put people through to keep our lights on.” 

A note about Maurice Ruddick from the Canadian Encyclopedia: “A journalist later asked Ruddick why he chose to do such dangerous work; he replied, 'One thing you must understand, there were good times in the mines — a lot of singing in the break periods, a comradeship.'”

It is a new type of thrill seeing Beneath Springhill, a one-man show, yes, and there have been a number of them over the years at Theatre Orangeville but this one is different. Quite different. It is worth every minute of concern for those many characters that Mr. Sparks delivers so well.

Beneath Springhill will also be live streamed and included in Theatre Orangeville's StageTOScreen library shortly.

For all those details and to purchase tickets, go to www.theatreorangeville.ca or check in with the charming folk at the Box Office at 519-942-3423. The Box Office is located at 87 Broadway in the Opera House.

 

 


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