BWW Review: WEST BY GOD at The Keegan Theatre
"West by God," Brandon McCoy's world premiere about all things West Virginia at the Keegan Theatre, begins with four different story lines.
There's a native (Kevin Hasser) going back home from D.C. to visit an ailing grandma. There's a professor (Susan Marie Rhea), also in D.C., lecturing about the same misunderstood Appalachians. Then there's a mother and son seemingly living up to every stereotype we're supposed to ignore (Rena Cherry Brown and Colin Smith), living and dying with fortunes of the local teams (West Virginia football, Cincinnati Reds baseball). And finally, there's a homespun mother (Sheri S. Herren) and antsy young daughter (Rachel Trauner) determined to leave the Mountain State for good.
Scenes shift, mostly by lighting (from G. Ryan Smith), from one to another story line. Sometimes they go on the same time. In between, there's lots of information about West Virginia, complete with scenic slide show and a quiz on things like the state flower (some in the audience even answered out loud).
But just as storylines converge just in time for the intermission (and a declaration just before lights go black that's an eye-roller), all of the state flag waving pauses in place of some family squabbles that are never made quite clear. They revolve around two deaths and funerals - of characters we never get to see and who are never quite delineated. And as arguments get heated, we begin to lose what made the whole setting so important in the first place. Don't families argue everywhere? Shouldn't we learn a little about shift away from coal that's blamed for the economic decline of the state (and the need to do so during an October with 90 degree temperatures?)
We don't even get to hear a full-throated version of the unofficial state song, which at least did have a West Virginia-D.C. connection - it was written in Georgetown originally about a highway near Gaithersburg. The author gave the revised version to John Denver after a Cellar Door show in 1970.
McCoy, who wrote "Other Life Form" for the Keegan two seasons ago, handles sound design and original music heard between scenes. Three other of his plays will be read during the run - and he'll head a comedy night as well.
Matthew J. Keenan's set of rough-hewn wood seems to work with its different levels, providing an expanse for the projections and eventual illustrations (by Bailey Powell). But could they have had Hasser and DeJeanette Horne, as a friend he meets on a plane, sit while they fly? Seems odd that they're standing.
Director Jeremy Skidmore gets some good performances, from the intense authenticity of Brown, as the mother, to Smith as a laid back brother. Trauner adds some life as the young woman itching to leave; I wish she had better lines to say.
Rhea is solid as the professor but the role is similar to others she's done at the theater where she is also artistic director - sharp, tough but ultimately vulnerable. The whole notion that she'd be hounded out of her job for saying Appalachians are as stereotyped as people of color isn't any more developed than anything else. Ultimately "West by God" - the title of which is grandma's phrase for "West, by God, Virginia" - could be cut, just as the beloved state it extols was cut from the side of Virginia in 1863.
"West by God" will nevertheless be the first traveling show from the Keegan. It will play, of course, in West Virginia this winter - once baseball and football seasons are over, that is (The question is: could it play anywhere else?).
Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Photo credit: Kevin Hasser, Rena Cherry Brown and Colin Smith in "West by God." Photo by Cameron Whitman.
"West By God" plays The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW, through Oct. 20. It opens its West Virginia tour Jan. 17, 2020. Tickets available 202-265-3767 or online.