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Christopher Joel Onken and David H. Littleton in Northside Hollow.

Have you ever imagined life inside a coal mine? Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers’ intimate (let’s even say claustrophobic) play, Northside Hollow, currently onstage at Urbanite Theatre, will take you there in a way you could not expect.

Thanks to the set design by Rick Cannon—warning signs, electrical panels and wires, fallen beams and crunchy rock underfoot—and the sound design by Rew Tippin (ominous and somehow not human), audience members are truly in the cramped underground space that is the center of the piece. And the lighting—or lack thereof—guarantees they are in the dark as much as the characters, except for the dim lamps on miner’s helmets (a few of which are worn by those seated in the back rows).

The experience is intense from the beginning, when we hear the sudden, explosive sound of a mine collapse. Within seconds we also hear the moaning and shouting of a trapped man, Gene (David H. Littleton), trying desperately to communicate with any would-be rescuers above ground. It seems his savior, a young first responder named Marshall (Christopher Joel Onken), has arrived as he lowers himself through the mine shaft to where Gene lies in pain with a possibly broken foot.

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Littleton's character, the miner Gene, trapped underground.

But will Marshall be able to extricate Gene, and himself? Who is Marshall, really? And why did the collapse happen? As the two men get to know each other a bit, while searching for a way out of their situation, we get, understandably, some pointed discussion about life, death and God. We also learn about Gene’s ex-wife, whom Marshall says is above them waiting for him—and about the feelings Gene still has for her.

Both actors are compelling under the taut direction of Summer Dawn Wallace, with Littleton totally believable as the older man, a gritty sort of guy with an Appalachian accent, a cigarette habit, and an affection for a missing dog. And Onken delivers the right mix of concern, uncertainty and, eventually, a bit of mystery as Marshall. Even though we can barely see the men’s faces at times, we get to know them. And while the play description might seem grim, the script actually offers some appreciated, if dark, humor as well.

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A view of Rick Cannon's claustrophobic set

Northside Hollow is one of those plays you don’t want to give away too much about, but rather let the audience discover its twists on their own. Suffice it to say, if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary that you will want to talk about after, it’s a good bet.

Northside Hollow continues through March 11; for tickets call 321-1397 or visit urbanitetheatre.com.

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