What does it feel like to experience a mine cave-in? Trapped in total darkness, with a dwindling supply of oxygen, food and water and perhaps a diminishing stock of trust, patience, and sanity as well, five struggle to survive in a 1973 West Virginia coal mine in Butcher Holler Here We Come.
The production is available to Southeast Texas audiences thanks to a unique collaboration between Brooklyn-based theater group Aztec Economy, local independent theater group Ad Hoc Beaumont and Beaumont Community Players.
The play immerses the audience in the miners’ world — shifting from moments of complete darkness to the glowing lights of their headlamps — and highlights the complicated relationships and troubled psyches of the miners, played by Adam Belvo, Issac Byrne, Michael Mason, Adam Laten Willson and Cole Wimpee.
Butcher Holler is rated PG-13 for violence and language and is not recommended for young children or people with claustrophobia or a fear of the dark. Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 5-7 and June 12-14, with 2 p.m. matinee performances June 7 and June 14, at the Jerry L. McMillan Studio Theatre at Beaumont Community Players’ Betty Greenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 4155 Laurel Ave., Beaumont. There will be audience-actor talkbacks following the 7:30 p.m. shows on June 7 and 12. Playwright Casey Wimpee will be present for the June 12 talkback. Tickets are $15 per person and are available online at www.beaumontcommunityplayers.com  or by calling (409) 833-4664.
While Butcher Holler focuses on coal miners in West Virginia, Southeast Texas audiences may see parallels to the men and women who work in area refineries and related industries.
Actor Michael Mason, who plays Muskie Pope in the play, said, “I think some of those guys and women that work out there would have a cathartic connection with it in a way that they might with a film. They might not know they can have that same connection with theater.”
To test it out, refinery, plant and factory workers will receive a $10 discount at the door with a work ID.
Beaumont Community Players’ website describes the play as “a descent into the male psyche-in-crisis where secret desires, carnal urges, and hidden memories come boiling to the surface in a primitive territory of Earth that mirrors the subliminal mind” that “brutally weav(es) through family histories, complicated friendships, crooked politics, childhood visions, audacious hopes, eerie dreams, criminal addictions, and fervent spirituality.” Written by Casey Wimpee, identical twin of actor Cole Wimpee, and produced by Aztec Economy, both based in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 70-minute play debuted at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival in 2013 and has since been featured at the New Orleans Fringe Festival, the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival in the Dallas area and Baltimore’s EMP Collective.
Butcher Holler is an immersive theater experience, Mason said.
“We sit the audience in this oval configuration,” he said. “It’s not a proscenium. It’s 360 degrees of space. Not having a set may be jarring for some people, but that also lets your imagination create the space. A lot of the action happens inside the oval or around the perimeter. Basically, they are on stage. Having these little headlamps and just sort of having this canopy of darkness all around you … the audience is right on the fringe of the action.”
Mason said the play would also keep audience members on their toes with its metaphysical elements.
“There are different moments in the play where you are thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’” said Mason. “It helps (the audience) get into the mindset of these guys trapped in a mine for several days not understanding how time is passing around them. The mental state of being stuck in the dark.”
The unique situation the characters find themselves in allows the audience to discover the true nature of these men.
“Being trapped in a situation like that opens you up … it takes you out of your comfort zone,” Mason said. “You drop your daily masks. Even though they all know each other … they know that they could die at any minute. So they decide to be open and honest and brutal. It shakes everybody down to their raw elements.”
Utilizing the metaphysical is not uncommon practice for playwright Casey Wimpee, said Mason, who founded Aztec Economy along with the Wimpee twins.
“Casey doesn’t like to spoon-feed people too much,” he said. “This show is more palatable than some of his other shows that can be completely abstract and intellectual with a lot of metaphors that can be kind of dense to tap into.”
The language of Wimpee’s plays possesses several Shakespearean qualities, Mason said.
“It has a lot of rhythm … it pays a lot of attention to alliteration and how words sound coming out of the characters mouths and how they all sound together,” he said. “The darkness allows the audience to hear the language and focus on the language to follow what is happening and what the story is. It’s a rich, dynamic dialogue. There’s a hyper-reality to it.”
Mason said he hopes Butcher Holler will expose Southeast Texas to a different kind of theater they might not be accustomed to.
“Some people never leave Beaumont,” said Mason, who studied theater in Brooklyn, but is originally from Beaumont. “It helps the town, and it helps the culture. It opens up minds and doors. We’re just trying to make affordable theater for people who might not think to go to it.”
For more information, search Ad Hoc Beaumont on Facebook or visit www.beaumontcommunityplayers.com .