“Every man on earth would kill for somethin’. Any says different – jus’ ain’t found out wha’s worth killin’ for yet.” – Devil Anse Hatfield, in Sally McCoy
In the middle of the night of August 9, 1882, Sally McCoy walked the four miles from her home on the Kentucky side of the Tug River to the home of familial rival, Devil Anse Hatfield, on the West Virginia side. Anse was holding three of her sons prisoner. This happened. IRL. What’s lost to history is what occurred during that visit. Women’s stories, like Sally’s, were rarely recorded back then. In fact, even the date of Sally’s death is unknown; no one bothered to memorialize the event for posterity. Sally McCoy, which celebrated its world premiere this weekend at Cohesion Theatre Company, is Playwright Alice Stanley’s imagining of what transpired during Sally’s long night at the nexus of the storied feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.
The play takes place in the main room of Devil Anse’s home. We join the action just prior to Sally’s arrival; Anse’s sons, Johnse and Cap, are playing cards while their uncle, Anse’s brother Wall, peers anxiously out the window. Director/Scenic Designer Brad Norris, with Scenic Artists Haley Horton and Jessica Rassp, has created a beautiful set for Sally McCoy. The inside of the house, with knotted wood floor and walls, simple furniture, and the glow from a stone fireplace used for both warmth and cooking, takes us back 150 years, though I suspect similar places remain in remote Appalachia to this day. The view outside the house – the stark mountain, a graveyard of tree stumps, victims of the Hatfield timber business – is illuminated only by the dappled light of the moon and the firelight escaping Anse’s windows (thanks to skillful lighting design by Lana Riggins).
Katharine Vary delivers a superb performance as McCoy matriarch, Sally. Overstepping the bounds of propriety and culture, she debates, appeals, rages, and pleads in a desperate effort to rescue her sons. Embodying Sally, Vary wears a bold face during her interactions in this house of men, but her subtle body language belies her fear. Her fingers clutch at the folds of her skirt (ably designed by Costumer Jessica Rassp, who also constructed that impressive fireplace) as Sally demands an audience with the Hatfield patriarch. The way she recoils when she believes she’s about to be done harm gives her away as a woman accustomed to brutality who is fighting her own flight response to stand up for her boys. An emotionally-charged portrayal of a woman attempting to assert agency in a culture that grants her none, Vary’s performance showcases her considerable acting skills.
Jonas David Grey, a chameleon-like talent who has wowed me in roles ranging from a whimsical Zombie Shakespeare (The Complete Deaths of William Shakespeare) to a cunning underworld Marquis (Neverwhere), plays Devil Anse Hatfield. It’s hard to take your eyes off Grey’s chillingly intense Anse from the moment he makes his dramatic entrance until the end of the play. The determined and resolute head of the Hatfield family, it is his responsibility to protect their honor, to revenge any wrongs done to his clan. He didn’t get the moniker “Devil” out of nowhere; Anse is a hard man with an almost mythic reputation. Still, in Grey’s hands, we see that in some ways, Devil Anse is as much a prisoner as the McCoy boys. That he is as poorly served by the false rules governing his gender as Sally is by hers.
Devil Anse’s learned brother, Valentine “Wall” Hatfield, is adeptly played by Thom Sinn. Wall is a tricky character. On the one hand, he’s an educated man. The only Hatfield we meet who is literate, Wall reads scripture to the congregation at church on Sundays. A sitting judge, he knows the law and is versed in the ways of the judicial system that is working its way west with the railroad. On the other hand, he’s lived in Tug Valley his whole life – for most of that time, the only justice around was vigilante justice. Sinn does an admirable job showing the inner conflict of his character, who, to me, embodies the tug-of-war between myriad colliding conventions, all represented in some way in Sally McCoy: justice vs. vengeance, religion vs. secularism, modernity vs. traditionalism, family vs. community, the feminine vs. the masculine. Sinn’s Wall carries all that and more on shoulders burdened by the contradictory impulses of his heart.
Imagine Hurricane Irma inside a wine bottle and you’ll get some sense of Betse Lyons’ portrayal of the volatile Cap Hatfield. Cap is the 18-year-old son of Devil Anse. In a talkback after the workshop performance of this play that I reviewed in April, Jane Jongeward – who played Cap in that version (and is playing Johnse in this one) – appropriately described the character as “toxic masculinity personified.” The cross-gender casting of Lyons in this role serves to put that quality into sharp relief. Cap is cruel to his older-but-gentler brother, Johnse; he is quick-tempered and impatient, spoiling for a fight in that way some testosterone-filled teens seem to walk through the world. He paces and growls, fists clenched, enraged that he can’t just go kill the McCoy boys right this second. Lyons’ menacing embodiment of Cap is terrifying, yet, there’s more to Cap than this one-dimensional description would suggest. In a feat of impressively nuanced acting, Lyons also projects the fear beneath Cap’s fury. Lyons’ Cap is a bully, for sure, but his current explosivity is an expression of his worry for one of his kin. Lyons manages to show the vulnerability in an archetype of power.
Having seen Jane Jongeward play a sociopathic Cap in the spring workshop performance of this show, I wasn’t sure what to expect as they took on the role of Cap’s older (by two years) brother. Jongeward, like Lyons, was cross-gender cast; they are a total charmer as the sweet-talking ladies-man, Johnse Hatfield. From the way they quickly tie their kerchief when a lady, Sally, enters the room to the courteous manners and compassion they show when engaging with her throughout the play, Jongeward embodies the expression “a lover, not a fighter.” Despite an apparent reputation as a womanizer, Johnse has a naïve sweetness about him. Jongeward radiates joy when they deliver an impassioned monologue recounting Johnse’s first glimpse of a now-lost love. Their subtle physical reactions when Johnse is being bullied by Cap made me cringe with protective ire, and I found Johnse’s anguish over a personal loss to be sincerely heart-wrenching.
There are no weak links in Cohesion Theatre Company’s production of Sally McCoy. It boasts an outstanding cast, a well-crafted, well-researched script (Playwright, Alice Stanley, Dramaturg Abigail Cady), thoughtful direction (Brad Norris), and a top-notch production team (with Stage Manager Sandra Welty keeping everything on track). The time and preparation this collection of creatives devoted to the production – including the research field trip several of them made to the Tug River Valley together – shows in the artistry of the designers and the beautiful congruence of the cast.
I’ll close this with much the same counsel I gave in my report on the workshop performance I saw six months ago: go see this production while you can still enjoy it in the intimacy of Cohesion’s theater space. Alice Stanley’s extraordinary Sally McCoy can be appreciated on many levels. At face value, it is an emotional drama about love, courage and family; it is also an entertaining bit of historical fiction. But take the time to look a little deeper. You’ll find an intricately connected set of themes spanning women’s issues, gender roles, religion, modernity, and the way that we trap ourselves when we unquestioningly accept “conventional wisdom.” In times such as ours, each of these remains a subject well worth our consideration.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Sally McCoy plays through October 1, 2017, at Cohesion Theatre Company performing at The Fallout Shelter at United Evangelical Church – 923 S. East Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.
There will be no Friday night performance on September 22, 2017.
Also, be sure to check out the dramaturgy wall at the theater. Dramaturg Abigail Cady prepared an informative, pictorial timeline of events related to Sally’s visit to the Hatfields. Also, Cady will be leading talkbacks following the Sunday performances of Sally McCoy.