Hatfield & McCoy | House Theatre of Chicago

WHEN Through 11/4: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM

WHERE Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western

PRICE $10-$22

INFO 773-251-2195

Most writers would have given the well-known Hatfield-McCoy feud a light treatment, but House Theatre playwright Shawn Pfautsch uses it as a jumping-off point for a full-fledged Shakespearean tragedy, ending with a stirring soliloquy and a stage full of dead bodies. Others might have relied on hillbilly stereotypes–moonshine, old-fashioned rifles, tough old birds in dusty boots–but Pfautsch provides a nuanced portrait of Appalachians that would have made James Agee proud.

Hatfield & McCoy, Pfautsch’s account, is compelling and believable if not historically accurate — he fiddles with the facts to make a better story. But the basic bones of the tale are here: a McCoy girl and Hatfield boy fall in love, adding fuel to the fire of a long, bloody battle that began in earnest in 1878, though there were skirmishes as much as 15 years earlier. Pfautsch enhances details drawn from history, especially when they add resonance. The leader of the Hatfields was indeed a tough old cuss nicknamed “Devil Anse.” But Pfautsch goes a step further and makes him a preacher who twists Bible verses to justify his evil ways. Similarly, he uses one source of the feud–a dispute over a hog–as a metaphor for its cruelty and stupidity, showing the pig stolen and butchered in a needlessly painful and bloody way.

Most renditions of the love affair between Rose Anna McCoy and Johnse Hatfield are variations on Romeo and Juliet, but Pfautsch packs his script with Shakespearean references, and not only to the classic love story. Like Shakespeare, Pfautsch never tells his tale just one way. Often he repeats the major themes in music: bluegrass tunes he also wrote. Rose Anna explicitly compares herself to Juliet and even puts on rough-hewn dramas that include bad imitations of Shakespearean verse. A pastiche-loving postmodernist, Pfautsch has his cake and eats it too, both mercilessly parodying Shakespeare–and those who love him–and creating a genuinely tragic, emotionally satisfying Shakespearean ending.

In Matt Hawkins’s staging, with musical direction by Kevin O’Donnell, not a costume, accent, or gesture feels phony or forced. When Sara Hoyer’s spitfire Rose Anna falls for Johnse, you feel she does so with her whole heart. And when Nathan Allen as Devil Anse calls for the extermination of the McCoys, he seems to speak from the depth of his being. The same strict adherence to feelings leads her to love and him to murder, which adds a layer of mystery to this fine, powerful production.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.