In Hatfield & McCoy, House Theatre takes liberties with the legendary mountain feud | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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In Hatfield & McCoy, House Theatre takes liberties with the legendary mountain feud

Distortions of the historical record strike a sour note


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I n 1865, Asa Harmon McCoy made the miscalculation of his life, figuring he could return to his home on the Tug Fork River, where Kentucky and West Virginia meet, after serving on the Union side in the Civil War. A Confederate guerrilla unit led by Jim Vance soon showed up and killed him. Jim being a relative of Devil Anse Hatfield, patriarch of the Hatfield clan, and Asa being a member of the mountain dynasty led by Randolph "Ol' Ran'l" McCoy, the incident has come to be considered an early tussle in the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Other incidents followed. Loads of them, across decades-ranging from a legal dispute over ownership of a certain hog to the New Year's Day Massacre of 1888, in which a Hatfield squad (led by the same bloodthirsty Vance) attacked Ol Ran'l's home, killing two of his children, bashing his wife's head in, and burning his compound to the ground. Read about the feud if you get the chance. It's an intimate, brutal, jaw-dropping tale that suggests Huns and Vandals one minute, Machiavelli the next, and involves cameos by bounty hunters, state governors, and the United States Supreme Court. Cliven Bundy, David Koresh, Warren Jeffs, John Brown, and Nat Turner got nothing on these folks.

Shawn Pfautsch crams most of the high points into Hatfield & McCoy, his 2006 play with music, currently getting a mostly delightful revival (featuring folksy new songs by Pfautsch and Matt Kahler) at the House Theatre of Chicago. But the heart of this telling is the star-crossed romance between Ol' Ran'l's daughter Rose Anna and Devil Anse's son Johnse.

The reputedly sheltered Rose Anna met the reputedly rakish Johnse in the spring of 1880, during Election Day festivities. They evidently consummated their love at the first opportunity, and Rose Anna went to stay with the Hatfields for a time. Nobody seems to have celebrated their relationship, though. While Devil Anse was merely wary, refusing to allow a wedding, Ol'Ran'l considered it a blot on the McCoy honor. A group of his men waylaid Johnse, either to turn him over to the law or kill him outright. Rose Anna alerted the Hatfields, who intercepted the kidnappers and freed Johnse. After that, things between the two families only got uglier. Rose Anna is said to have died of a broken heart.

If this narrative of feuding families and hapless lovers reminds you of something out of Shakespeare, you're not alone. Most accounts I've seen draw the analogy to Romeo and Juliet-and so does Pfautsch, with what you might call a vengeance. Structurally, H&M is a kind of an Appalachian West Side Story.

Which has its good and bad points. On the plus side, the idea opens a path to vast fields of charm. Kyle Whalen's Johnse and Haley Bolithon's Rose Anna are styled, a la Romeo and Juliet, as playful, sweetly precocious teens. Early on their allure is compounded by their seeming awareness of the Shakespearean ramifications of their love: they court each other by quoting (copiously) from the Bard. Later, their tragedy is deepened by the same device, suggesting their belated recognition that they may suffer the same fate those Italian kids did. The approach is consistent with the House aesthetic, which tends toward ingratiatingly whimsical theatrics even when the subject matter is grim.

But Pfautsch's fidelity to his literary source forces him to shortchange the historical one. He's got to ignore or distort some inconvenient facts in order to make the concept work out right. The real Johnse, for instance, wasn't quite the doll he's made out to be here. Where Pfautsch, Whalen, and director Matt Hawkins frame him as the sensitive Hatfield-an artistic sort, too tender for the family business-the record notes that he abandoned Rose Anna when she was pregnant and married one of her cousins instead. Pfautsch also has to do some fancy, not to say implausible, plotting to explain how a guy as nice as Johnse could end up doing 13 years in prison for murder. Weakness may have dictated his behavior. Or obedience to his dad. Or simple heelishness, I don't know. I'd be interested to see it dealt with, though. Similarly, Pfautsch more or less inverts Devil Anse, turning him from a Bible skeptic into a Bible thumper in order to advance a subtheme about the evils of religion.

I know it's a dirty trick to fault a show for not being what it never set out to be. Still, Rose Anna, Johnse, and the rest were real people, and it seems to me that Pfautsch took on a solemn responsibility to them when he chose to tell their story.   v

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