By Colin Douglas
The bullets fly, the blood freely flows and the feudin’ and fightin’ begins in The House Theatre’s newly-revised story from 19th century America, Hatfield & McCoy.
It’s a violent chapter of our history that’s inspired countless films, books and scholarly studies. Once again the Hatfields and McCoys are waging war for theatergoers to partake, although this time around the story has been blended with a familiar tragedy by The Bard.
One of the most famous feuds in American history, a continuing conflict that lasted for years, involved two rural Southern families. The Hatfield clan, led by Devil Anse Hatfield, lived in West Virginia. Their primary source of income was the lumber business. The McCoy family, under the guidance of Ol’ Ranl’ McCoy, resided just across the state line in Kentucky. The McCoys were modest farmers, barely eking out a living. Both families, like many others of that area, were in the illegal moonshine business, as well.
Being Southerners, when the Civil War broke out both families primarily fought for the Confederacy. However, Asa “Harmon” McCoy chose, instead, to join the Union Army. He was killed by Rebels, but his killing was particularly attributed to a Hatfield, Uncle Jim Vance. This act seems to have been motivated by the clan’s revenge for the ambush and murder of a close friend a few years earlier.
Then the feud ramped up over the dispute of a hog on the Hatfield property. Floyd Hatfield claimed the pig was his, but Randolph McCoy said it belonged to him. Bill Staton, a relative of both families, testified to the law in behalf of the Hatfields. Two years later Staton was found shot to death by “Squirrel Huntin” Sam McCoy, but he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
At an annual talent contest, held in conjunction with the local elections, two of the younger members of each family competed against each other. Although both proved talented, Rose Anna McCoy lost the competition to Johnse Hatfield. Not as bitter about the loss as her family, Rose Anna instantly found herself romantically attracted to Johnse. They struck up a whirlwind relationship and were soon married. The two families, despite being devout Christians, continued hating and attacking each other despite the union of their two children. The fight escalated out of control until the final tragic moments.
Written by company member Shawn Pfautsch and directed with power and passion by the House Theatre’s own Matt Hawkins, this all-new production is a sweeping historical saga, with more than a touch of romance. The story is told in both prose and poetry. It’s text is inspired by historical records, along with dialogue from William Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy about star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The production also features a score of rich, authentic mountain music. Pfautsch and Matt Kahler have incorporated bluegrass, folk, rock and gospel songs into the play, giving the experience an authentic Appalachian sound. The songs are sung and danced with gusto by Hawkins’ 18-member cast, artfully choreographed by Katherine Scott. The cast often accompanies themselves, supported by Matthew Muniz’s talented three-member, onstage band that sports guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle and synth keyboard music.
The ensemble is dynamic and multitalented. As Rose Anna McCoy, lovely Haley Bolithon is captivating. She brings an innocence and honesty to her portrayal of a young girl who enjoys creating art and simply wishes her family would stop the fighting with their neighbors, the Hatfields. Rose Anna’s amateur plays are reminiscent of Jo March’s in Little Women, as she enacts skits for her family, with the help of her brothers and sisters. The teenager adores Shakespeare and her beautiful contest song, based upon the dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, is a highlight of this production.
Handsome, engaging Kyle Whalen creates an earnest and heartbreaking Johnse Hatfield. He’s the peaceful exception to his feuding family and Bolithon’s equal. Whalen’s gorgeous musical talent enhances his portrayal. The relationship between Johnse and his beloved Rose Anna is as fresh and true as a Spring morning. We know these two kids are doomed from the beginning, but through their trusting, genuine portrayals they bring a ray of hope to this story.
Robert D. Hardaway is magnificent as the fiery Devil Anse Hatfield. He’s a no nonsense actor who’s energy and enthusiasm is boundless. Hardaway is as straightforward in this role as he is authentic. Matched by the company’s exquisite Marika Mashburn, as his feisty, moonshine-swilling wife, Levicy, they become the power couple of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Playing his patriarch role with a quieter strength, Anish Jethmalan is strong as Ol Ranl McCoy. Never one to settle his fights with weapons, Mr. Jethmalan’s formidable performance is enthralling. Audiences see how this caring father provided a role model for his eldest daughter, Rose Anna. As his wife Sarah, Stacy Stoltz is a stalwart mother for her brood of youngsters and a brave, capable wife for her husband. In her own, reticent way, Stoltz is a standout performer in this role.
As representatives of the law, Desmond Gray is very good in the role of Bill Staton. As fair as he is competent, Gray’s Staton does his best to help diffuse trouble. And Chicago veteran Jamie Vann makes his auspicious debut at The House as Marshal Frank Phillips. His is the voice of reason and unbiased authority, a difficult role, as Mr. Vann struggles to keep these two feuding families at peace. It isn’t an easy job and theatergoers will empathize with this poor guy as he constantly struggles to uphold the law.
This play may be considered a work in progress. Pfautsch and Kahler’s newly revised version of their earlier script shows progress and promise. But, at almost three hours in length, this edition is a little too long. The play has either too many episodes, too much dialogue or too much music; one element needs to be trimmed a bit. The story could even be simplified some more. There’s too much detail and audiences are sometimes overwhelmed with so many characters to follow. After a while, the events become tedious. The strength of the script involves the two lovers; the rest of the play shows the eternal conflict, against which their story is set. As of now, the violent confrontations overpower the best part of the story.
Strong performances abound in this production. Directed with energy and earnest passion, this company’s signature mixture of a good story, live music, strong vocals and inventive choreography all meld together, creating an exciting drama. Although a little too long, it’s a story that’s part of American history and folklore and definitely worth a visit.
The House Theatre of Chicago presents “Hatfield & McCoy” through March 11 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.