Playwright: book by Mariana Elder, music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen. At: Griffin Theatre Company at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; www.griffintheatre.com; $25-$36. Runs through: Dec. 22
Listen closely during the first few minutes of spoken dialogue, because the exposition comes fast: Ten years earlier, in 1952, the South Mountain Mine collapsed, burying the miners trapped therein. The owners torched the remains of the site, subsequently dubbed "the burnt part" by the grief-devastated local citizenry. With the news that the shaft is to be reopened, however, young Pete Twitchellfueled by fantasies of John Wayne in The Alamovows to dynamite, and thus forever seal, the entrance to what he regards as a shrine marking his lost father's grave.
This sets up the play's main action, as the defiant Pete and his meek sidekick navigate forests, ford streams and acquire themselves a guidea runaway tomboy of likewise romantic proclivitieson their trek through the rocky West Virginia hills, pursued by Pete's elder brother Jake, and his best buddy. As often occurs in American literature, their immersive proximity to nature sparks introspective insights leading them to confront memories of the past and hopes for the future, before a crisis puts both their bodies and soul-searching in danger whose resolution requires intervention by the still-vigilant ghostly sires who inhabit the subterranean depths.
There's enough material in this Frodo Baggins-meets-Tom Sawyer premise for a dozen thematic explorationsamong them, American pantheism, following your bliss, honoring the dead, a hymn to laborers, thrilling boys' adventuresbut what integrates the fluctuating tonal ambivalence in Mariana Elder's text is Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen's score of Appalachian string-band ditties, replete with extended high-notes invoking transcendent pastoral elation. The actors in this Griffin Theatre production may be limited in their experience with this folk-genre, but Nicholas Davio's music direction capably suggests its more esoteric flourishesyodeling, say, or a solo played on a carpenter's saw. It also solves the acoustical problems long associated with wide/shallow auditoriums by projecting the vocals side-to-side more often than full-forward, offering the sound a greater spread over the room.
Ultimately, the infectious exuberance of the fresh young talent smiling and singing their hearts out in the intimate quarters of Theater Wit's southwest studio overwhelms the fuzzy narrative arc to win our unconditional emotional support. When have Griffin audiences ever objected to a healthy dose of sentimentality?