BWW Review: A Beautifully-Acted Tragedy Of Ideas: SALLY McCOY at Cohesion Theatre
Fifty years ago a Norman Mailer novel followed a young man and his combative, conservative, hyper-masculine father on a grizzly bear hunt in Alaska. The book hardly referenced the Vietnam War, yet the title was Why Are We In Vietnam? The connection, of course, was the toxic masculinity and conservative moral blindness of the father, who stood in for all of the tendencies in America that had drawn us into that cataclysmic conflict.
I was thinking a lot of that book while watching the premiere production of Alice Stanley's play Sally McCoy, being staged through October 1, courtesy of Cohesion Theatre at its home at United Evangelical Church in southeast Baltimore. Though the play focuses on an obscure event in an obscure bit of history encrusted with legend, the Hatfield-McCoy Feud, it is clear that playwright Stanley views that event as a first-rate microcosm of the perennial central conflict in American culture and history: between a humane, forgiving, religious, and female-friendly outlook personified in the matriarch of the McCoys, the eponymous Sally (Katherine Vary), and the hard, eye-for-an-eye, acquisitive, vengeful, and intensely clannish world view for which the patriarch of the Hatfields, "Devil" Anse (Jonas Grey) speaks.
The event which forms the nucleus of the play occurred in August 1882, when the Hatfields had captured the three sons of the McCoys with plans to slay them for their roles in the killing of a Hatfield. Their mother Sally walked four miles to confront the Hatfields, and most particularly "Devil" Anse, where they lived. Stanley fills in what may have happened next with their playwright's imagination.
What they fill it with might be called a tragedy of ideas. One by one, Sally runs through all the reasons the Hatfields should show mercy and the Hatfields deflect those reasons as best they can. Which is not to say that this is a sedentary talkfest. There is threatened gunplay, the brandishing of a knife, fisticuffs, screaming and anger. There are also moments of sweetness, when Sally effectively seduces the Hatfield men off their pedestals of obduracy, and offers tenderness to which none of them is wholly insensitive. Sally is passionate, and the Hatfields are hardly less so.
Not that it is all ideas, either. This is also a clash of personalities. Sally, as realized by Katherine Vary, is amazing to watch, as she constantly calculates what tactic, rhetorical, pugilistic, or personal, to employ next. When her bag of tricks appears empty to us, and apparently empty to her for a moment, she keeps coming up with one more - and you can see her own delight and relief at her creativity as she yet again digs up something else. Jonas Grey's Devil Anse is not oblivious to Sally (after spending most of Act One offstage refusing to deal with her at all); he cannot ignore the power of most of her arguments, but he cannot ignore the pull of his own code, either, which demands that a clan, and especially its head, enforce blood vengeance. That code is paramount in his eyes over any appeals like Sally's to social order, religion, or fairness.
In the end it comes down to a feminist, liberal worldview versus a conservative, tribal, masculine one. In other words, the great divide in American culture throughout our history.
The acting in this production is astonishing. There is not a weak performance in this cast of five. Vary I have already mentioned. Grey, whom I think I last saw as Richard II at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, brings us here a performance far removed from that icy, indecisive monarch; this is a strong, dominant male, with a great deal of self-confidence who affords an audience, when he does, and a hearing, because that is what strong men do. Thom Sinn, as Valentine Hatfield, a judge who feels he must abandon judicial impartiality and fairness when one of his own family is attacked but does not entirely lose his objectivity or humanity in the process, shows much depth within that complicated job description. Jane Jongeward does an admirable job as Johnse Hatfield, the youngest and most sensitive of the Hatfield men, torn between fundamental decency and family loyalty. Betse Lyons conveys well the glowering aggression of older son Cap Hatfield.
Yet I must say a few words here about Jongeward and Lyons, who occupy these roles thanks to non-traditional casting. Playwright Stanley's note at the head of the script explains that choice: "It would be ironic at best and hypocritical at worst to shine a light on women's voices and perspectives with this piece while casting majority white men. Therefore, ... it is encouraged that the director employ cross-gender casting [for Johnse and Cap], particularly for Cap, whose hypermasculinity must be performed anyway." With true respect, I disagree. The corporeality of performers is an indispensable aid to the audience's suspension of disbelief. And in a play which, as the playwright themselves (Stanley favors third-person plural pronouns) acknowledges, opposes "women's voices and perspectives" to those which comprise the dominant male voices and perspectives, the more effortlessly we in the audience can see the male characters as such with all of their flaws, the more powerfully Stanley's point will be made. They have placed one female character in a room with all male characters, and for good dramatic and thematic reasons. Those reasons should not be undermined.
A different kind of point could have been made by having someone who clearly does not belong to a group satirically critique the group by playing a member of that group (e.g. the Asian actors critiquing European imperialists in Pacific Overtures). But this play was not a satire, nor were Jongeward and Lyons critiquing men through their portrayals, only playing them. As I've already noted, Jongeward and Lyons handled their roles skillfully, but I have to say it was never possible to cease to be conscious of the fact that they were not men. It weakened the overall effect.
Another thing of a completely different nature that weakened the effect was the length of the play. As good as Stanley's script is, it would be even better if there were less of it. Every time Sally reaches into that bag of arguments, she comes up with something worth listening to. But until the end she never apparently changes anything. Each brilliant argument seems to be won, but without effect. At some point, the process begins to remind one of the comment of some critic (I wish I remembered whom) about J. M. Synge's Riders to the Sea, a tragedy which focuses on the loss of the last of seven family members each of whose six predecessors has ridden to the sea and drowned. As the critic pointed out, if we had had to watch the process going on with each of the six, we would have been helpless with laughter by the time we reached the seventh. It was craftsmanlike of Synge to show us only one. I do not suggest that we should have only have had one of Sally's arguments, but there does come a point somewhere where one must call a pause. I would suggest that the point here would be the moment when the audience is bound to understand the way the play will end, somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes before the curtain calls.
Fortunately, Sally McCoy appears to be a work in progress. It has had two different readthroughs elsewhere, and it absolutely deserves to be produced and developed further. There is still time to tighten it.
And notwithstanding any critical comments here, I heartily recommend it. Stanley is an playwright of immense talent and with something to say about large subjects. And in this beautifully-acted production, that is plain.
Sally McCoy, by Alice Stanley, directed by Brad Norris, presented by Cohesion, through October 1 at United Evangelical Church, 3200 Dillon Street, Baltimore, MD 21224. Tickets $20 with certain discounts available, www.cohesionstheatre.org. Violence, onstage and off.