Butcher Holler Here We Come
Review by Willard Manus

BUTCHER HOLLER HERE WE COME is literally and figuratively underground theatre at its best.
Casey Wimpee's play, which won a playwriting award at the recent 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival, is set in a West Virgina coal mine, circa 1972 (when coal was king). As directed by Leah Bonvisutto, the play unfolded in a bare room at the Thymele Arts Center which had no overhead stage lights. None needed, though, because the action took place mostly in darkness--the darkness of a coal shaft. With the audience sitting on bridge chairs, the five actors in BUTCHER HOLLER wove in and out, illuminated in ghostly fashion by their headlamps. Their proximity to you made for an intimate, visceral vibe: you truly felt you were in that shaft with the miners, experiencing each and every emotion they did.

These emotions were generated by a mixture of fear, terror, pain and rage--with a pinch or two of black humor. Reason being, we soon learn, that this small team of miners has been trapped underground by a cave collapse. With dwindling oxygen, energy and hope, they are facing their demise in the depths of one of West Virginia's "blue" mountains. Their struggle for survival is a brutal, bloody, profane one. The playwright does not shy from showing men at their worst; there is no sentimentality here. At the same time, he manages to portray these besieged miners with respect and understanding. They are flawed, yes, but they are human as well.
None of this is revealed in conventional fashion. The miners communicate in short, intense bursts of dialogue, fired at each other like machine-guns. The West Virginia dialect, mining slang and local references also affect comprehension, but it doesn't matter, you can understand the truth of their plight, their lives. All five were career miners, same as their fathers and grandfathers. They had worked long, dirty years underground, chopping coal for a company that owned their houses and stores--their souls, really. It was a shit job but the only one available to them, so they sucked it up and kept working, until a mine collapse or the black lung eventually got them.

These things are only hinted at in BUTCHER HOLLER, but it's clear they understand their place in the class struggle...and in the history of this part of the USA. Once these mountains were home to the Shawnee Indians whose ghosts still haunt the miners.

Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, part dark comedy, BUTCHER HOLLER is a remarkable drama featuring five actors whose commitment and dedication to this challenging, uncompromising work helped earn the play its deserved Fringe prize.