Northside Hollow: Man vs….?

Predictable writing, superb everything else makes Urbanite’s latest show well worth the ride.

If this were a review of the script, Northside Hollow would get far fewer stars. In a post-M.-Night-Shyamalan world, endings with a twist become too easy to spot, too predictable, too… normal.

But this is not — thankfully — a script review; it’s a review of Urbanite Theatre’s latest production, a regional premiere of Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers’ Northside Hollow, which opened Friday night to a sold-out house. 

Unlike Urbanite’s last production, Echoes, which relied solely on lights and the supreme talent of the two-member cast, Northside Hollow has a realistic, detailed set of the inside of a collapsed mine. Rick Cannon’s scenic design distracts you from holes in the script, holes that suggest the world is not what it seems, and perhaps this plays a part in the story working as well as it does — the intricacies of the set make allow for a suspension of disbelief, rendering the ending more powerful. 

That’s not to detract from the supreme performances from David H. Littleton, who plays Gene, a trapped miner who may or may not have triggered the collapse, and Christopher Joel Onken in the role of Marshall, who arrives on scene with a golly-gosh-gee Boy-Scout-first-responder vibe. Even after it’s clear fresh-faced Marshall can’t get himself back through the ever-collapsing mine shaft, much less the injured Gene, there’s an odd humor — not black humor, just odd — between the two men. 

If this were a typical rescue story — does such a story exist? — it wouldn’t compel us when they joked. But fear for Gene’s fate — will this man whom Littleton instantly endears to us live? — sets a thoughtful pace of awkward moments of terror and laughter, interspersed with hostility between victim and savior. 

A large part of making this regional premiere of Northside Hollow a success — and yes, although I’m not in love with the script itself, I consider this gripping production of it very much successful — the sound and light design deserve a review all their own. Ryan Finzelber’s lighting includes dressing five audience members in miner’s vests and helmets, with lights emanating from their headlamps. For the first several minutes of the play, his lighting design includes no actual lights, only complete darkness, which transports you from a tiny theater across the street from Whole Foods to a coal mine in, perhaps, West Virginia. The whole of the show’s lighting consists of those five audience members, Gene and Marshall’s headlamps (which had to wreak havoc on the first two rows of the audience) and a rescue lantern. But the most gripping light cue is the first: darkness.

And about that darkness — it’s complete. Littleton’s voice is all we have to orient us as we experience those first moments (unlike most other theater companies, Urbanite does not have a curtain speech reminding you to silence your phones and unwrap your candies; it is assumed audiences know proper etiquette and follow it); the opening of the show is such that one moment you’re chatting with your date and the next, Rew Tippin’s sound design has you quaking in the darkness until you remember, yes, that’s right, this is a play. 

Tippin’s realistic sound — static-y radios come from the actual radios, not speakers elsewhere — mingles with the set and lights and contributes to the terror of immersion you feel those first few moments. That sense of terror becomes less visceral throughout the 85 minutes, but I’ll admit a revelation about Gene’s companion, Vincent, had me crying well before the end of the show. Those first few moments of darkness never wholly recede; they follow Gene throughout the show, and first terrifying sound cue, too, follows.

Onken’s Marshall had a sticky role, and while I don’t wish to spoil the ending, I was initially surprised not to see him in the final scene, because I’d grown attached to the wonky little guy by then and really wanted that completion of character. When you see the show — and please, go see the show — you may understand this next statement better, but Marshall’s role in the ending didn’t hit me until this morning, a full 12 hours after he took his curtain call. 

If I had one complaint — and I do — it would be of Gene’s speech about begging to God. I’m unclear as to whether it’s my own Buddhist/pantheistic notions of spirituality that contributed to this or if perhaps it could be unpacked better for Littleton, but the words felt like words, not emotions. It was the only time in the show I wished I wore a watch, made more disappointing because I empathized severely with Gene. That one scene aside, Littleton made me laugh, cry and, in the end, broke my heart. 

And so, I suspect, will he break yours. This show is predictable, but that’s OK. There are no new stories, right?

But you can tell the same old story in brilliant ways, and that is what Urbanite and director Summer Dawn Wallace have done: They’ve taken an age-old struggle and, despite your best efforts to resist, made it so that hours after the show, it still sucks you in. 

This article initially appeared in Creative Loafing.