Where: The House Theatre of Chicago, 1543 W. Division St.
When: through March 11
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Like more than a few of The House Theatre of Chicago’s original shows, “Hatfield & McCoy” overflows with more energy than artistry. First staged in 2006, ensemble member Shawn Pfautsch’s play about arguably the most famous family feud in American history has been completely reworked with the addition of all new music by him and Matt Kahler, but it still isn’t all it could be.
The folksy songs are one of the main reasons to see this production. Performed by the talented 20-member cast, some of whom play guitar and other instruments, and a small onstage band—Josh McIntosh on fiddle, Jake Saleh on upright bass, and Matthew Muñiz, also the savvy music director, on synthesizer and drum machine—they range from lively bluegrass to lovely ballads, with a little pop and rock thrown in for good measure. The best seem to be concentrated in the second half, among them the love song, “Stay a While, Moon,” and the lament, “My Own Dear Child.”
That love song is sung by Kyle Whalen as Johnse Hatfield and Haley Bolithon, a radiant young actor to watch, as Rose Anna McCoy. They meet at a party and what follows, not unpredictably, is a Romeo and Juliet-style love story with a few role-reversal twists. Naturally, they want to end the feud between their families, and they sing ‘Stay a While, Moon” as dawn is breaking on their big push for reconciliation. Here, as elsewhere in their relationship and the rest of the script, a lot is stolen from Shakespeare, and not just “Romeo & Juliet.” Their courtship draws on “The Taming of the Shrew” among other sources, and at one point, Rose Anna assigns roles from the Bard to various feuding parties.
Rose Anna also is the force behind the McCoy’s homemade theatricals, which help define the family led by Ol Ran’l McCoy (Anish Jethmalini) and his wife Sarah (Stacy Stoltz). Fervent Bible thumping and committed gun-toting distinguish the Hatfields, thanks to patriarch Devil Anse Hatfield (Robert D. Hardaway) and his mate, Levicy (Marika Mashburn). Early scenes illustrating these tropes drag on forever, making the story hard to get into and the nearly 3-hour evening at least 30 minutes too long.
Another drawback is that it is almost impossible to care about any of the characters except Rose Anna and, possibly for her sake, Johnse. Neither the actors nor director Matt Hawkins are really at fault. These people are either thoroughly despicable, like Hatfield henchmen Bad Lias Hatfield (Jeff Mills) and Jim Vance (Michael E. Smith), or insufficiently delineated, such as the younger children. Sure, the shoot-em-ups and blood-letting well-orchestrated by Hawkins are fun to watch, but after a while, they have an annoyingly repetitive quality.
Pfautsch’s account mixes fact, fiction, and speculation. The Hatfields and McCoys, who lived on opposite sides of the West Virginia-Kentucky border, were feuding from roughly 1863 to 1891, so the play conflates the events. The feud may have started in earnest with the murder of Asa “Harmon” McCoy (Cody Proctor) just after he was discharged from the Union Army (most members of both families fought for the Confederacy), which is the incident that opens the evening.
According to Wikipedia, the Hatfields were more affluent than the McCoys, something that is not at all clear here, though it probably should be. They also were well-connected politically, which crops up indirectly in legal judgments in their favor, though Marshall Frank Phillips (Jamie Vann) is portrayed as fairly impartial. In case you’re wondering, Rose Anna and Johnse really did have a relationship, but even after she betrayed her own family to save him, he abandoned her when she was pregnant and married her cousin, Nancy McCoy (not portrayed).
Technically, “Hatfield & McCoy” benefits from Lee Keenan’s scenic and lighting design, Emily McConnell’s serviceable costumes, and Grover Hollway’s sound design. Katherine Scott’s choreography combines scenes of chaotic dancing, which looked like they needed more rehearsal, with those featuring stylized movement, which left me cold, as they often do.