Beneath Springhill: excellent performance, dull material

publicity photo for Beneath Springhill, Arts Club Theatre

Jeremiah Sparks is terrific in Beneath Springhill,
but the material doesn’t support him.(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

When does a pile have no depth? When it’s a pile of clichés.

I can understand why programming Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story might have looked like a good idea. This solo musical is based on the real-life experience of Maurice Ruddick, a Black Canadian miner who was trapped underground for nine days in a mining disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia in 1958. Apparently, his singing helped to keep a small group of fellow survivors alive.

With Covid and climate change, the world is going to hell, so I can understand why the Arts Club’s artistic director Ashlie Corcoran would be attracted to a story of endurance and triumph. And, given the uncertainties of the pandemic and the financial hit that theatres have taken, it makes sense to program a one-person show.

But there are no ideas in Beneath Springhill and there’s virtually no dramatic tension.

When this kind of thing is presented as popular entertainment, you know the protagonist is going to survive, so you’re just left to sit in the dark counting out the days. And it’s not like Beneath Springhill offers any development in terms of characters or themes. The fictional Maurice Ruddick is presented as perfect, which means he’s boring: he’s a happy man, an attentive husband, a loving father. Because this Maurice experiences no internal conflict, there’s no room for him to grow and, as we watch him, the script offers us no opportunities to gain insight. Near the end, Maurice identifies the three things that have seen him through: “my faith, my music, my family.” But, because he hasn’t had to struggle with any of these, because they are just reassuring givens, they have no meaning.

Even the racism that Maurice experiences is dealt so perfunctorily that it barely registers, and the resolution of the one minimally developed racial conflict comes too easily.

Fortunately, director Bobby Garcia and his team have managed to build a production that’s solid on its own terms despite the flimsy material. Actor Jeremiah Sparks is stellar. The songs, which were written by Rob Fortin and Susan Newman, are undistinguished, but Sparks sings them with a warm and remarkably supple voice. And he’s a charming performer who creates several distinct characters — including Maurice’s ten-year-old daughter Valerie — and fills the underwritten script with honest feeling.

The towering wooden structures of Ted Roberts’s set are so elemental they become powerfully abstract and the low angles of Jeff Harrison’s lighting are dramatic.

But what I wouldn’t have given for some content!

BENEATH SPRINGHILL: THE MAURICE RUDDICK STORY Created by Beau Dixon. Music and lyrics by Rob Fortin and Susan Newman. Originally directed and developed by Linda Kash. Directed for the Arts Club by Bobby Garcia. At the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage on Tuesday, August 18. Continues until August 29. Tickets.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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