When it comes to feuding, no one did it better than the Hatfield and McCoy clans in a region between West Virginia and Kentucky during the 1870s and '80s, holding grudges and, at periodic intervals, dispensing their vicious version of eye-for-an-eye justice.
There is more than enough material here for an epic opera. Or an intimate play, like "Sally McCoy," now being given an effective world premiere from Cohesion Theatre Company.
Penned by Cohesion co-founder and Howard County native Alice Stanley, this ambitious, promising work centers on one of the ugliest chapters in the feud.
It started on an election day in 1882. A brawl between members of each family culminated with the stabbing and shooting of a Hatfield. Three McCoy brothers were arrested, but snatched by Hatfields and held by the patriarch — William Anderson Hatfield, vividly nicknamed "Devil Anse" — while the family waited to learn if the kinsman succumbed to his wounds.
Stanley imagines Sally McCoy, mother of the kidnapped boys, making a daring visit to the home of Devil Anse in an effort to get them released to the authorities, so the courts — not one man — could pass judgment. It's a deft plot-starter, allowing for a mix of history and fiction to unfold.
Above all, the play provides a way to get past the usual patriarchal focus of the feud by putting a woman at the center of the action. She becomes the voice of all the mothers and wives and sisters who were caught up in the dreadful cycle, but, given the times, were probably paid little heed by the men with vengeance on their minds.
In this telling, Sally makes no apologies for intruding on Hatfield territory and refusing to budge until making "Devil Anse" hear her out. "My manners were left," she says, "in one o' the fields I crossed to get to the house where my sons are goin' to die."
The battle of wills certainly has theatrical spark, once it finally arrives. But Stanley takes too much time getting there ("Devil Anse" makes his initial entrance only at the end of a long first act), and then reiterates many points, weakening the tension. Judicious trims would give the text a boost.
Director Brad Norris doesn't help matters by allowing for leisurely pacing for much of the dialogue (country folk may not be fast-talkers, but no harm in pretending otherwise onstage).
Still, there is a lot of potent material. The confrontation between Sally and Anse, for example, contains many a telling point. When Sally, surprisingly prompted by Anse, breaks into the haunting hymn "Wayfaring Stranger," the play hits an affecting peak.
And scenes between Sally and Johnse, a sensitive Hatfield youth who, a la "Romeo and Juliet," had an assignation with a McCoy, have poetic beauty. This is especially so when Johnse, recalling the object of his affection, describes how "she smiled so easily; it was like, she'd smile, an' that smile barely had time to go off her face before she had another one ready to go."
I'm less sure about the way Stanley puts such words as "indisposed," "vulnerable," "priorities" and "egotistical" in characters' mouths. But most of the time, the tone feels right, the message registers.
The production features a firmly focused performance by Katharine Vary in the title role. Jonas Grey offers impressive nuance and grit as Anse. Thom Sinn does subtle work as Valentine Hatfield. Jane Jongeward makes a persuasive Johnse.
In the end, despite its length and sluggishness, "Sally McCoy" succeeds at evoking an unfortunate time and place where stubbornness and myopia kept lives stuck on a path that was all too "rough and steep" (in the words of that hymn) — and where, had anyone been willing to listen, a woman might have led the way toward "beauteous fields."