Man of the deeps

Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story

Review | by Sean McQuaid

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Watermark Theatre – November 30, 2022

Dark events can cast surprisingly bright shadows. That’s true of the 1958 Springhill mine disaster, which brought death and destruction but also made a feel-good legend of its survivors, especially musical miner Maurice Ruddick. It’s also true of 2022’s Hurricane Fiona, which battered Atlantic Canada but showcased the region’s resilience and determination as communities rallied, recovered, rebuilt.

Those bright shadows overlap in Watermark Theatre’s belated production of Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story, a one-man show based on the real-life story of how Ruddick and others survived nine days trapped deep underground in a coal mine in Springhill, Nova Scotia. Watermark’s plans for a September-October run were foiled by post-Fiona problems, but the show finally opened on November 30. As Watermark’s artistic director Robert Tsonos has observed, post-hurricane PEI feels like the perfect time and place for an inspirational play about surviving a disaster.

That inspirational play is the brainchild of Ontario-based actor, musician, playwright, music director and sound designer Beau Dixon, artistic director and co-founder of educational theatre company Firebrand Theatre. Dixon serves as both playwright and star of the show, originally directed and developed by Linda Kash with music by Susan Newman and lyrics by Rob Fortin.

The award-winning production has toured nearly every province of Canada in schools, theatres and other venues since 2014; a print edition of the play has been published, and a digital recorded version of the show developed during the COVID-19 pandemic theatre shutdowns is available online.

A devoutly Christian smalltown coal miner who moonlighted as a musician, Maurice Ruddick was, like Dixon, a mixed-race African-Canadian singer from a large, religiousfamily (Ruddick had 13 children and Dixon’s minister father had 13 siblings). While the racism of his era posed occasional challenges, Ruddick was nevertheless admired and celebrated after the disaster, named “Citizen of the Year” for bolstering morale by leading his fellow miners in prayer and song during their underground ordeal.

Known as “the singing miner,” Ruddick chronicled this crisis in his own Springhill Disaster song, as did one of the televised historical Heritage Minutes shorts a few years back, but Dixon’s play is the most ambitious artistic adaptation of these events to date.It’s a compact script spanning a little over an hour, but Dixon packs that running time densely with a steady stream of songs, monologues and dialogues.

Dialogues? In a one-man show? Yep, because Dixon plays a host of characters, not just Ruddick but also Ruddick’s wife and daughter, various fellow miners, a CBC reporterand more, altering his voice, dialect and body language as needed plus occasional quickie prop/wardrobe modifications. Dixon’s fluid acting versatility might be the most impressive thing about the show, which is inspirational as advertised but also a bit thin story-wise.

During the play’s brief running time we get to know the Ruddicks and their community, and we see and hear how Maurice and company survived the mine disaster; but it’s a very basic plot and the show’s Maurice isn’t really a character who develops or evolves – he’s the same hardworking yet playful, brave yet humble mensch from start to finish.

That said, he’s an entertaining, immensely sympathetic protagonist brought to life by anactor who’s likable, funny and similarly musical (Dixon serves his show well as both vocalist and guitarist), and Dixon affectingly blends notes of pathos, agony and suspense into the story’s sadder and scarier moments, aided by a small, often-dark minimalist set and evocative lighting and sound design. Even knowing how it all turned out decades ago, it’s a tale full of real human drama and heart.

Sean McQuaid
Sean McQuaid

Mild-mannered legislative researcher by day and oddball freelance writer by night, past Buzz editor Sean McQuaid has been a contributor since the '90s and a theatre enthusiast for longer than that. He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, daughter, cat and untold thousands of comic books.