Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers’ play “Northside Hollow” is dark — thematically, yes, but mostly in terms of light, or lack thereof, in the regional premiere of the work at Amphibian Stage Productions. That makes sense considering that two characters are trapped deep underground in a coal mine.
Fielding, a Texas Christian University alum and a co-founder of Amphibian, and Withers, known for her play “Matt & Ben” and her quirky take on “Don Quixote” that was premiered by Amphibian in 2015, co-founded Harbor Stage Company in Massachusetts, where “Northside Hollow” premiered in 2015. The last time Fielding directed at Amphibian was to open its current space with a revival of “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, The Ugliest Woman in the World,” which was performed entirely in the dark.
“Northside Hollow” only begins that way, as we hear the rock hammer and voice of Gene (Jim Jorgensen), who has fallen into a cave in a mine collapse, unsure if the other miners hear him. Soon enough some light is found — lighting designer Andrew Garvis has his work cut out for him with this show — and we hear the voice of a rescuer, Marshall (Jordan Sobel), who climbs down from a hole in the roof of Seancolin Hankins’ scenic design. After he arrives and there’s another rumble of rocks, they’re trapped.
Gene’s leg is hurt, and Marshall attempts to help. What follows is a story of two men, both from the same region and with plenty in common, who have no other choice but to bond. They are, after all, stuck together in what seems like an inescapable situation, likely closer to death than either has been before, even though a miner’s job is rife with danger.
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It’s reminiscent of Patrick Meyers’ 1982 play, “K2,” about two men trapped on an icy ledge on the world’s second-highest mountain. Except in “Hollow,” the men are of a different class (it takes a lot of money to trek a Himalayan mountain).
Much of the banter between Gene and Marshall is light, as if two guys are having beers on barstools. Rival football teams, Gene’s rocky relationship with women, and the irony of smoking cigarettes in a lung-endangering mine are some of the topics. God and death also factor into the conversation, but here, death is not just existential. It’s a probability.
Given Gene’s injury and their location with Hankins’ craggy rock around, above and below them, director Fielding doesn’t have much room for physical action — but stillness is important to the drama. Jorgensen and Sobel play off each other nicely, finding all the uncomfortable moments of humor in a grim situation.
Jorgensen, who is based in Washington, D.C., but was a Southern Methodist University student who ran the Dallas outfit New Theatre Company in the 1990s, gives us a man trying to let little beams of optimism escape through the cracks, but is weighed down by the gravity of his likely fate. It’s a captivating and heartbreaking performance. Sobel plays to his character’s strength as a caregiver not entirely overtaken by the reality of dying without saying goodbye to loved ones up above.
The design is first-rate. David Lanza’s sound design is important, as it more than hints of a world crumbling in, and there’s a clever environmental-staging lighting trick that won’t be spoiled here (it was part of the original staging, too).
Late in their conversation the ending becomes predictable, but the play’s thoughtful, sometimes funny rumination on mortality leaves no room for major surprises. You could probably wedge in a commentary on the dangers of fossil fuel to the planet, but “Northside Hollow” mines something bigger and more immediate without becoming too heavy.