When we know old stories, does that give us the power to merely follow their course, or change them? This question sat at at the forefront of my mind while watching The House Theatre of Chicago’s revival of “Hatfield & McCoy,” a production that takes American history, and attempts to make it new by threading it with spectacle and tying it tightly to the tale of Romeo and Juliet. The final weave makes for disappointing storytelling, even as the acting, music, design, and choreography of the piece all deserve praise.
The Hatfield family of West Virginia and the McCoy family of Kentucky are already feuding when the play begins. As the lights rise, recently returned Union soldier Asa “Harmon” McCoy (Cody Proctor) sings a ballad about the afterlife, and is shortly confronted by a pack of Hatfields, who murder him for reasons unknown. Young Johnse Hatfield (Kyle Whalen) was meant to pull the trigger, but finds he hasn’t the stomach for gruesome family business. His father Devil Anse (Robert D. Hardaway) and mother Levicy (Marika Mashburn) expect loyalty from their clan, so it is shocking when Johnse meets and impulsively marries Rose Anna McCoy (Haley Bolithon), daughter to Ol Ranl (Anish Jethmalan) and Sarah (Stacy Stoltz). Ranl believes there is recourse in the law, so while he doesn’t demand prosecution for his brother Harmon’s murder, he does pursue justice in the case of a pig that may have been stolen by the Hatfield clan, involving both lawman Frank Phillips (Jamie Vann) and a relative on both sides of the feud, Bill Staton (Desmond Gray). Troubles escalate when Rose Anna’s uncle Sam (Bradley Grant Smith) shoots Staton in retribution, setting off a cycle of bloodshed that could lead to the destruction of both families, despite Rose Anna and Johnse’s best efforts.
History can be a tricky tool to work with onstage. The theatre artist is able to include fiction alongside truth because the audience can read the facts from historians after the show. The playwright provides one interpretation of the record, an emotional truth; or rather, a thematic truth. By calling to life the stories of those long gone, to examine particular light-reflecting facets of the hard diamond that is history, the playwright can illuminate our lives now. But that mix of fact and fiction can confuse rather than enlighten, when the writer does not trust the audience to grapple with the complexities of history.
The real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud lasted from 1863 to 1881. It spanned generations, and involved land disputes, political machinery, Confederates standing against the Union, and yes, a possibly stolen pig. Squeezing all that down into a two hour and forty minute run time would be impossible, but I wish that playwright Shawn Pfautsch had better balanced the passions at work with the reality of his tale. Centering his retelling on young lovers Johnse and Rose Anna is a smart move, as it gives the audience a concrete emotional foothold amid all the violence. However, Pfautsch chooses to link Johnse and Rose Anna’s romance to Romeo and Juliet’s, not simply via thematic parallels, but by sticking Shakespearean text in their mouths in lieu of their own feelings, and having them beat by beat reenact the same tragedy that those lovers faced. Finding parallels between history and literature is one thing; relying on another dramatist (using one of his earliest, clunkiest tragedies) to infuse your story with meaning is quite another. I found myself disengaged with this tale of feuding families because little about its thematic perspective felt original or lively. If Pfautsch is building a tragedy of his own here, we do not know enough about the events and actions told to discover what mistakes the characters made, what deep grief could have been avoided had better choices revealed themselves.
Director Matt Hawkins makes up for the lackluster drama by filling the stage with foot-stomping activity. He and choreographer Katherine Scott develop spectacular movement pieces that highlight the energy and focus of the diverse, large cast. As members from each family die, their ghosts wander the stage, and their deliberate, haunting steps, coupled with Lee Keenan’s eerie lighting design and wide-ranging set, become some of the most memorable work of the show. Likewise, a dance of sorrow by the McCoy and Hatfield women hammers home the loss that the script fails to evoke. And a Hatfield home surgery, rhythmically and desperately beat out in dance and slow motion, highlights the gore and guts that typify crude country life.
The script asks actors not only to two step all over the stage, but to wrestle with high-faluting language and abrupt changes in tone, from making corny jokes to swearing oaths of vengeance. Hardaway as Devil Anse and Jethmalan as Rand make formidable foes, with Hardaway bouncing his words all over the space like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and Jethmalan methodically using the Bible to convince his family not to retaliate. Mashburn and Stoltz are secret weapons, unleashing resentment late in the play that could be further developed. Bolithon and Whalen are fine as the dreamy couple, but they are outmatched by the killers onstage, Bradley Grant Smith, Michael E. Smith and Jeff Mills, who all say little but take action with cold precision and focused passion.
Pfautsch and Matt Kahler up the emotional ante by filling this production with songs inspired by the sounds of the Civil War era. A three-piece band — comprised of a fiddle, bass, and drum machine — plays at the back of the stage, and the mixing of voices and live music often lifts the play into a higher register. Grover Holloway’s sound design moves of a piece with this choice. It is particularly noticeable with the continual coming thunderstorm that appears in both acts; it sounds like an ominous drummer at the back of the space, and the roll of thunder only enhances the spectacle Hawkins is creating.
Thus, the power in “Hatfield & McCoy” lies less in its mix of history and literature, and more in the excited rhythms and movements of its design and set pieces. Swapping one old story for another dims its theatrical exploration, but if you can accept that no new ground is being trod here, “Hatfield & McCoy” might provide a thrilling evening of drama, even if it never escalates into full-blown tragedy.
Show: “Hatfield & McCoy”
Company: The House Theatre of Chicago
Venue: The Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Family feud, laced with spectacle, fails to land its tragedy.
DIE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”