“Beware the man who only owns one book/He will wear his lack of knowin’ like a crown,” sings a ghostly victim in the House Theatre of Chicago’s topical remounting of its 2006 play “Hatfield & McCoy,” now featuring original songs by Shawn Pfautsch (who also wrote the script) and Matt Kahler.
The song, “One Book,” is a folksy yet ominous country tune about how religion is sometimes used as a weapon to escalate human tensions — not resolve them. And the patriarchs of the House McCoy and the House Hatfield are both deeply religious men. Ol Ranl McCoy (Anish Jethmalani) responds to nearly every conflict with a desire to turn the other cheek and a shout of “go get your Bibles.” Devil Anse Hatfield (Robert D. Hardaway), meanwhile, is a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. His song “Galilee” packs all the passion of a Baptist summer revival, except the cries of “amen” and “hallelujah” are augmented with a sea of pistols waving to the heavens.
HATFIELD & MCCOY Recommended When: Through March 11 Where: The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Upstairs Theatre, 1543 W. Division Tickets: $30-$50 Info: www.thehousetheare.com
Things are a bit uneven with the script as Devil Anse and his Hatfield clan are portrayed as the villains of the piece (the history of the real-life feud between the families was much more complicated when it came to assigning fault and blame). The “good” reverend even asserts that “Thou shalt not kill” is a mistranslation that should actually read “though shalt not murder.” It’s this distinction that he uses time and again to absolve himself and his kin for their bloody sins.
This intriguing religious clash, though central to the plot, is merely the backdrop on which Pfautsch sets his 19th century retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” (complete with a cast of 20 and a three-piece band). The family feud and the play’s setting on the border between Kentucky and West Virginia is a fine substitute for Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets of 14th-century Verona, Italy.
The young lovers in this case,Haley Bolithon as Rose Anna McCoy and Kyle Whalen as Johnse Hatfield, hope to use their relationship as a salve to ease the bitter feuding. Bolithon’s Rose Anna comes off as the more idealistic of the two, with a warm, alto voice reminiscent of both Patsy Cline and June Carter Cash, particularly in “It Is My Lady” (Shakespeare is credited for the lyrics), wherein Bolithon captures the heartfelt longing of Shakespeare’s text. Whalen’s Johnse, meanwhile, is a lovestruck Buddy Holly-type. His song “Goin’ Home” is a poppy, rockabilly anthem that feels modern in contrast to the rest of the score.
The pair’s mothers also offer stark contrast. Whereas Levicy Hatfield (a superb Marika Mashburn) is cold, distant and often inebriated (her shotgun and whiskey jug are always in her hands), Sarah McCoy (a warm Stacy Stoltz) is fiercely protective of her children, melting metal for bullets in the kitchen in preparation for battle.
The direction by Matt Hawkins moves at a brisk pace, with the exception of the initial scenes with each family. Both the McCoy Panto play and the Hatfield fiery sermon could benefit from some judicious cuts as both go on for far too long.
Emily McConnell’s costumes – green for the McCoy clan and orange for the Hatfields — help the audience keep track of all the characters’ familial affiliations, and (perhaps unintentionally) also reference the colors of the deep-seated rivalry of Protestant (orange) and Catholic (green) Irish.
Of the nine new songs written for the production, the hauntingly beautiful ballad “My Own Dear Child,” in which a mother clutches the empty shoes of her slain children, is likely to stay with you long after the lights have come up. Fathers send their sons off to war, leaving the mothers to deal with the aftermath and, sometimes, to quietly grieve alone.
Misha Davenport is a local freelance writer.