Sally McCoy – Stay Home, Stay Quiet


*This is The Bad Oracle’s “family matters” disclosure: someone involved in this production is related to or the partner of a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle.  

The Hatfield-McCoy feud was one of the most famous, deadly, American clan wars to ever take place.  Sitting as it does at the intersection of illegal activity, brutal poverty, a religion that emphasized quick, bloody judgement, and an isolated region’s hatred of foreign ways (see: Sicilian crime families, mafioso), the entire thing was understandable, but fucking unnecessary.  And also really very stupid.  I think Sally McCoy (Katharine Vary), the title character of Alice Stanley’s new full-length play, would agree with me on that.  Stanley sets their story at the flash point of tension between the two families, riiiiight around the time everything could have been avoided, had toxic masculinity not been a thing and/or someone had sparked a reasonable thought in their brainpans.  Little is known about Mrs. McCoy, historically, but Stanley isn’t interested in hand-me-down history, anyway.  They blow the hinges off the door, almost literally, with this piece, and it really couldn’t be more fucking great.

The premise is simple:  Sally McCoy, wife of Ole Ran’l McCoy, head of the McCoy fam, has made the four mile trek, by herself, into hostile territory.  Why would she do such a thing?  Well, the Hatfields have got her three sons held prisoner out by the distillery, and she’s not about to go down without a fight.  She’s got to talk to the patriarch of the Hatfield family, Devil Anse (Jonas Grey), to see about him not shooting her boys in the head in exchange for them almost murdering Anse’s brother.  The Hatfield men tell her no, she ain’t seein’ Devil Anse.  She sits down with a flint in her eye.  Sally’s lost babies, sure, plenty of them, and she’s a farmer’s wife and used to death, maybe, but that was God’s work.  She’s not about to let them be taken by the devil.

Stanley is a master of the “yet”.  These people, all of them, are bound by a set of gendered codes that do not permit Sally to be in the Hatfield kitchen at one o’clock in the morning, yet there she is.  Devil Anse is not predisposed to see a woman as his equal, and yet he does, grudgingly enough, but he does.  A Hatfield woman should not be comforting a member of the enemy tribe over the death of his baby (her grandbaby, also), yet she does.  Stanley recognizes the rules, and they also recognize how people, both then and now, break them, constantly.  The entire show points out how ridiculous “honor” can be, how it’s usually a cloak for a bunch of scared, drunk, uneducated men to shoot at one another over how angry they are about their circumstances.  And that’s because they play centers a woman, and her experience, and that experience cuts right through the bullshit, and it’s brilliant.  It’s brilliant.

This production is a staged reading, so the actors are carrying books, and the set/costumes aren’t fully realized, but honestly, the whole thing is presented as a complete enough experience that you’ll barely notice.  I think the script could be tightened in a few places, and the contrast between two of the Hatfield boys, Johnse (Matthew Payne) and Cap (Jane Jongeward) is a touch too black and white for such a complex show (Johnse the soft, sensitive one vs. Cap the hot-headed meanie).  Some of the words felt anachronistic; I doubt anyone would suggest a “dialogue” at this time and place.  There’s also a subtheme involving Devil Anse’s name that could be cut completely, it’s rounded off a little too neatly for my taste, but this is nitpicking.  The script is a blast of cold air and it’s bracing.  Stanley writes with the urgency necessary to make an episode that happened a hundred and thirty years ago and that we all know the outcome of suspenseful.

I don’t think, though, this show could be separated from its living heart, and that is Katharine Vary.  She’s absolutely electric.  Vary plays Sally as a woman constantly thinking eight steps ahead, dodging the barbs, slams and fists that are, sadly, second nature to someone in her circumstances.  She knows she’s the equal or better of these men, but she has to play the fucking game because those are her children out there.  The scenes between Vary and Grey are so fucking tense, partially because they seem so familiar.  You get the sense that these people more than know each other, they are made of each other, through generations, and that’s part of the reason it’s all so fucked up.  The way that Vary controls Sally’s desperation is amazing.  This is one of those parts that it would be so easy to chew scenery on, but Vary, and director Dierdre McAllister, are unwilling to let Sally become that one-dimensional.  She’s a grieving mother, sure, but she’s also a lot of other things, and some of them we find out and some we don’t.  Given more rehearsal, this could be a career defining part, and it would be worth it.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  Okay, someone needs to pick up Sally McCoy for their season IMMEDIATELY and they need to ensure that Katharine Vary is available for it RIGHT NOW.  If I have to sit through yet another motherfucking Neil Simon or Stephen Dietz while a text this vital, this necessary (WOMAN ARE NOT FOOTNOTES TO HISTORY), is out there, I’m going to lose it.  The first company that picks it up gets an instant donation from The Bad Oracle.  That’s how serious I am.  Oh, and it plays tonight, and tomorrow, and then it’s gone.  So GO.

Running at The Strand Theater Company as part of the “Women on Top” Festival through April 23rd.

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