“Hatfield & McCoy”: a Powerful “Romeo and Juliet” in the Appalachians

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member

All photos by Michael Brosilow


What American is unfamiliar with the long-lasting Capulet and Montague-like feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys? They were two proud families whose shared enmity resulted in constant fighting and bloodshed in the late 1800s. Their very names are now synonymous with extended hatred between any two groups. The feud has passed into American folklore and has been the subject of numerous television and film projects. Hatfield & McCoy, House Theatre’s new production of its own 2006 play, now directed by Matt Hawkins, brings the infamous interfamily fight to the stage in a play packed with Americana songs (and at least one that resembles modern pop), extraordinary acting, and plenty of gunfire and blood. Despite its nearly three hour length, it is a very entertaining and memorable performance.

Hatfield & McCoy is not the true story of the two families and their bad blood, but it covers most of the main events of the thirty year long hostility and gets us up close and personal with most of its main participants, including the clan leaders, Devil Anse Hatfield (Robert D. Hardaway) and Ole Ranl McCoy (Anish Jethmalani) and members of their immediate families, including their stalwart wives, Levicy Hatfield (Marika Mashburn) and Sarah McCoy (Stacy Stoltz). It begins with the event that catalyzed the feud in real life: the murder of Asa “Harmon” McCoy (Cody Proctor), a returning soldier and the only member of either family to fight for the Union Army. No one knows who actually killed Harmon, but the play takes the view that it was Jim Vance (Michael E. Smith) and Bad Lias Hatfield (Jeff Mills), a popular belief at the time. In the play, the murder is accompanied by the slaughter of an entire troop of soldiers, foreshadowing the bloodshed to come.

But the play is not merely a representation of the feud itself. Its title alludes to singular members of each clan, and those members are Johnsie Hatfield (Kyle Whalen) and Rose Anna McCoy (Haley Bolithon), two young people who, despite the discord between their families, fall in love. Playwright Shawn Pfautsch pulls no punches in his comparison to Romeo and Juliet, from the singular title to the song that Rose Anna sings taken entirely from that play to the fact that the two young lovers—as only two young lovers could do—see their situation as such a clear echo of Shakespeare’s star-crossed couple that they actually quote from the play when talking to each other. And though they marry in secret and then decide to use their relationship to try to broker peace between their warring families, the overtly tragic references clue us in, as if we didn’t already know, that there can be no happy ending for these two.

Shakespeare’s play may have posited “two households, both alike in dignity,” but we are introduced here to two households that could not be less alike in their daily lives. Though both patriarchs drag out the Bible with frequency (Devil Anse to justify his actions and Ole Ranl to teach his children how to act), we see very different lifestyles amid all of this strife. In the Hatfield cabin, the three young girls (Jenni M. Hadley, Tia Pinson, and Ann Delaney, whom Devil Anse calls his “Wildcats”) all carry guns everywhere and are clearly trained to use them. They are the feud’s Sand Snakes, three deadly young women who just want the chance to prove themselves. Over at the McCoy place, there is overt hatred, yes (mostly in the older sons), but the main activity of the younger children is putting on plays they write themselves, as if this were Little Women. Rose Anna takes on the role of leader of this little family troupe: she is the writer and lead performer, quite the drama queen, but sister Alifair (Khloe Janel) and brother Calvin (Collin Quinn Rice) also are highly involved.

Looming over this domesticity is “Squirrel Hunting” Sam McCoy (Bradley Grant Smith), a bitter man who cannot put down his vendetta against the Hatfields for killing Harmon. Sam, almost constantly drinking, lacks the mollifying belief system of Ole Ranl and wants vengeance now. Combined with the anger in the McCoy boys (especially Pharmer, played by Royen Kent, but also present in Kyle Ryan’s Bud and Tommy Malouf’s Tolbert), this potent malice is enough to assure that no one on the Kentucky side of the cross-state conflict is likely to end it any time soon. Also looming close by is the Marshall (Jamie Vann), frustrated because he can’t seem to put an end to this acrimony once and for all and bring the feud to a close himself.

The performances here are universally wonderful. Hardaway’s gospel preacher deliveries seem perfect for the self-aggrandizing West Virginian Devil Anse, with his facial expressions vying between fondness for his family and detestation of all things McCoy, often in the same moment. His reaction to Johnsie’s marriage is a great example of an actor playing lines with a completely opposite subtext. Jethmalani’s approach to Ole Ranl is diametrically opposite: he is a quiet, even-natured man, disliking even holding a gun, disposed to going to the Bible whenever he feels anything negative. His own antipathy for the Hatfields manifests in a deep, slow burn, but between the two of them he seems to be the only one who could pull them out of this bitterness. Still, his anger can overflow, as it does when Bad Lias slaughters one of Ole Ranl’s hogs to end an ownership dispute that began when Ole Ranl gave some hogs to Bill Staton (Desmond Gray), a man whose allegiances are torn between the families as he is related to both.

There is less emotional divide between the wives. Stoltz plays Sarah as a woman who loves her children dearly but is constantly on a hair trigger when it comes to the Hatfields. It’s a fine line that allows some powerful mood swings and energy. Mashburn’s Levicy is never without her bottle of moonshine, and that fact colors her characterization, but both women, when faced with danger to their children, prioritize love over their loathing. Their maternal natures may be obscured by “cooking” bullets or constantly carrying a rifle, but ultimately they are mothers, and losing children is the worst thing that could happen to a mother.

Mills and Smith make fine villains here, Smith with his less vocal volatility and venomous malice and Mills with a combination of animus and something like pleasure: he seems to truly enjoy baiting the McCoys with his tongue as well as the constant threat of his gun, and Vann’s every appearance as the Marshall is rife with the irritation that these two families bring to his existence.

It’s Johnsie and Rose Anna’s story that will make or break the play, though, and the actors are more than up to the task. Whalen has a raft of expressions to choose from as his character experiences humiliation, love, frustration, anger, resignation, and myriad other emotions, and all of them are sincere and believable. Johnsie is a Hatfield, but (at least in this incarnation of the story) the one member of the family who can see the feud for what it really is. His attempt to bring peace to the families is a desperate act fueled by adolescent idealism, but Whalen makes it all feel somehow possible. Meanwhile, Bolithon (who reminded me of the poet Sarah Kay) brings even more of that idealism to her role. A real-life high school senior, Bolithon seems to draw from many sources to find Rose Anna, but one constant in her performance is the kind of outsized earnestness that Saturday Night Live skewers in its high school drama sketches. Bolithon clearly sees that in her character, the drama queen who would make up poetry even in the middle of a massacre and refer to herself in third person while doing it. Her Rose Anna is a wonderful combination of dreams and possibilities: for much of the play it is almost as if she isn’t acknowledging that the feud exists at all and then, after her wedding, she seems suddenly to take on one of the most adult perspectives in either family, forcing all to listen with her well-honed acting skills.

All of these performances, no doubt, were brought out by Hawkins, an experienced and award-winning director who takes on this material fearlessly. It is not easy to blend music into a straight drama. Musicals are designed to use their songs to further the narrative, and have been since Oklahoma. Here, though, the music is more often a commentary on what we have been seeing. Proctor, mostly seen with guitar in hand as a ghostly musical observer, does a fine job of handling the darkness in some of the songs. As the play progresses, he is joined onstage by the ghosts of others who have died, Hawkins showing them keeping a kind of watch over proceedings, undoubtedly hoping no more join their ranks. There are a million excellent stage pictures in this play courtesy of Hawkins and choreographer Katherine Scott, whose surreal arm movements foreshadow troubles that lie ahead. It’s a fascinating play to watch.

Lee Keenan’s set thrusts out into the Chopin Theatre’s huge space creating two distinct levels for playing, and Hawkins uses it well. Keenan is also the lighting designer, and the lights in this play couldn’t be better. Whether in the middle of a thunderstorm (cue great effects by sound designer Grover Hollway) or on a quiet morning at dawn as Romeo and Juliet Johnsie and Rose Anna share their nightingale/lark speeches, Kennan sets the scene brilliantly. Emily McConnell’s costumes, too, help sell this period drama, from the army uniforms to the dresses worn by the women and girls, everything seems perfect, as does the music provided by Matthew Muniz and a tight four-piece band.

It is nearly three hours long, though, including intermission, and the play could probably stand a bit of trimming, though I’m at a loss to say where. It would have to be mostly in the first act, which devotes itself nearly fully to setting up the feud and only belatedly gets around to the Romeo and Juliet element, belying the play’s title and focus. Also, the first act is where most of the songs have been added. Good as they are (and composers Pfautsch and Matt Kahler have done a wonderful job), they take up time, and I did notice that the first act seemed to run long. (At over an hour and a half, it did more than seem.) Still, this is really my only negative about this play.

The bottom line is that Hatfield & McCoy is outstanding theatre. It represents the best of what theatre can be: entertaining, thought-provoking, dramatic, even educational. (It may not be exactly the story of the feud, but it gets a lot right…and there is always the Shakespeare.) House Theatre has another hit on its hands.

Hatfield & McCoy is now playing at Chopin Theatre (presented by House Theatre), 1543 W. Division, until March 11. Tickets are available from The House TheatreFind more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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