Review: Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story

by Lynn on September 10, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

In Barrie, Ont. in a private backyard.

Created and Performed by: Beau Dixon

Music and Lyrics by: Susan Newman and Rob Fortin

Originally dramaturged and directed by: Linda Cash

Sound Design: Beau Dixon

Set and Lighting: Joe Pagnan

A gripping play and production about the Springhill, Nova Scotia mining disaster and how the faith and resolve of Maurice Ruddick saved five of his fellow miners.

The Story. Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story takes place in late October 1958. Maurice Ruddick is a strapping, charming happy African-Canadian man of mixed race. He’s 46. He always wanted to be a musician. He played guitar and wrote songs. But musicians don’t make a lot of money and Maurice is married with 12 children.  He needed to make money so he worked in the Springhill mine.

Miners complained of the weakness of the mine walls, there were various gases trapped in the coal shafts and naturally it was dangerous. Maurice and six of his co-workers were working two miles underground. It took them 20 minutes to get down to their site by an ‘elevator.’

On Oct. 23, 1958 there was a ‘bump’ a disturbance in the mine and rather than the walls collapsing in, the floor in the mine in fact blew upward. Maurice and his co-workers were trapped down there for a week. One was seriously hurt. His arm was caught under huge rocks and the other miners could not budge it off him. Maurice was instrumental in rallying the men: singing to them, making sure they shared any food they had and encouraging them when they lost hope.

The Production. Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story is a play with music. It’s an hour long. The show was created and performed by Beau Dixon, a hugely talented actor, musician, singer and music director. The music and lyrics are by Susan Newman and Rob Fortin and capture the world of Nova Scotia, mining, the resolve of the mining men to do a dangerous job and the life of Maurice Ruddick.

It was directed with energy and invention by Linda Kash. The playing space was in the backyard of a private residence in Barrie, Ont. It was an adventure. There was a light drizzle. The air was nippy but the small audience was so hungry for theatre we didn’t care. We came prepared with blankets and raingear. Two rows of chairs, properly distanced were arranged to curve around the playing area.

Joe Pagnan designed the set and the lighting. This young man is a magician of design. Simple wood beams in the ground suggest the sides of the mine walls. Lights on the beams provide illumination for the most part with other moments lit by strong lights behind the audience.  A simple black crate is used for many purposes in the play.

A reporter’s fedora is over there for easy access. A miner’s helmet and light is over here within easy reach as Beau Dixon shifts gracefully and quickly from character to character.

Can you really get a sense of the drama of the play in an hour? Absolutely. Beau Dixon is clever and thoughtful in his writing of the piece. A good chunk of the beginning of the play is spent establishing the happy-go lucky man who is Maurice Ruddick. He is a man who loves music and sings whenever he can. He is a good and loving husband and a devoted, doting father to his children.  He had a strong work ethic. His father taught Maurice that because he was a Black man he had to work harder others because he had to proved he was as good as his co-workers.

The play touches on the racism Maurice endured and the lack of bitterness he had when dealing with it. He passed that work ethic onto his children. So by the time the men go down into the mine on that fateful day, we know the kind of man Maurice is and his strong character and we  embrace him and have a stake in his survival.

I loved how time is spent suggesting how long 20 minutes is with regards to how long it took to get to their mining site from top of the mine.  I thought of the On Route stops on Highway 400 on the way to Barrie. A sign said the next On Route stop was in two kilometers—that’s less than 2 miles. So imagine the men trapped at the end of two miles and you have to dig through rock for that whole distance to rescue them. I broke out in a claustrophobic sweat just thinking of it.

In a scene just after the floor blew up there is a sound effect of screams from one of the men whose arm is pinned by rocks. The others can’t free him. Listening to the recorded sound of the screaming certainly ramps up the drama.

The scenes in the mine are interrupted by a CBC radio reporter bringing the news from the site of the disaster above ground. He was solemn and serious and perhaps irresponsible in pronouncing doom and gloom before all the men were rescued. Maurice and his co-workers were some of the last to be rescued and the reporter just assumed they were dead. Maurice’s loyal, steadfast wife put him in his place. These little reporting interruptions created the slow passage of time.

There was no food or water after seven days. Hope was running out even for Maurice, but he was a man of faith and that got him and his colleagues through.

Beau Dixon as Maurice Ruddick is such a versatile performer. He can sing, play guitar and he’s a wonderful actor. You get the sense of playfulness Maurice because of the whimsical, light-hearted way that Beau Dixon plays him.  Maurice is devoted to his wife and his love of his children is palpable.

Maurice was not a man who was riled by the racism he experienced, because he’s so full of dignity. And we get the sense at the end of the play, that he changed the attitude of his fellow miners.

Beau Dixon plays all the characters with just a switch of a hat, the shifting of a stance, a fluctuation in an accent and in one character, the spitting of tobacco after a dour comment. Each character is distinct and complete. Dixon makes us consider and care for everyone of them—hmmm I’m not sure I care for the insensitive clod of a reporter…..

Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story tells the gripping Canadian story of heroism. I thought it was wonderfully done, but if I do have a quibble, it’s that there should have been a packet of Kleenex on every chair for the emotional bits. Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story is worth the trip to Barrie to see it.

Produced by Talk is Free Theatre.

Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story plays in the backyard of a private residence in Barrie, Ont. until September 19.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.