Credit: Michael Broslow

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