Tonika Todorova is an adventure architect and a passionate lover of the shared human experience.
(l to r) Jenni M. Hadley, Michael E. Smith, Jeff Mills, Marika Mashburn, Kyle Whalen, Robert D. Hardaway. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Tonika Todorova
The House Theatre of Chicago often takes on real-life events and dramatizes them in a way that allows the audience to resonate with how it would be to walk in those people’s shoes. Such is the case with the House’s latest fare, HATFIELD & MCCOY, with the added bonus of seeing the legendary American feud through the eyes of Shakespearean star-crossed lovers. Even if the truth is quite a bit less romantic, the tool is effective — sacrificing innocence to appease the thirst for vengeance will give anyone pause.
The background is set under the magical spell of live bluegrass and the effortlessness with which it transports you to the dusty time of “ye haws” and “grab yer bibles” and the immediacy with which it wants to tell its tales. Propelling the story into action is the murder of one Harmon McCoy whose introduction is augmented by choreographed ensemble movement. Such movement becomes important emotional context for a play accented by plenty of pistol shots and a story riddled with senseless violence. One by one, we meet members of the Hatfield and McCoy families, the McCoys proving to be a more passive bunch. In the middle of this medley of characters, from drunk uncle “Squirrel Huntin’” Sam (a very funny Bradley Grant Smith) to Devil Anse Hatfield himself (a passionate Robert D. Hardaway), we meet the two lovers: Johnse Hatfield (a charming Kyle Whalen) and Rose Anna McCoy (an innocence captured by Haley Blithon and her sweet singing voice). The two conspire to bring the family feud to an end by bringing them together. And we all know how well that turned out. “The road to Hell is often paved with good intentions,” as they say.
This production is a revamp of the House’s 2006 HATFIELD & MCCOY debut. It feels relevant today in a world ever more polarized than before. The show doesn’t particularly tug on the heartstrings (with the exception of Stacy Stoltz’s powerful portrayal of a grieving Sarah McCoy) the way most House Theatre shows tend to do, but it is a great retelling (via quite the dramatic license) with harmonious live music, beautiful singing and a healthy dose of the House’s inimitable artful style. And a message we could always be reminded of: “Kindness, nobler ever than revenge,” just like Ol’ Bard of Avon used to say.