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The Barter Blog

Sally McCoy — A Lioness Defies the Hunter

October 12, 2018

Review by Bonny Gable

October 11, 2018

Which history lessons we learn depend on who’s telling the story. In Barter Theatre’s production of Sally McCoy by Alice Stanley, details of the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud — a phrase now synonymous with any intense dispute — are told from a matriarch’s point of view. This fresh approach to examining an Appalachian family saga nearly as old as the mountains from which it sprung is a welcome departure from our traditional views of the story.

Like Sally McCoy herself this play is spunky, gutsy, unvarnished, raw and fearless. Lives of loved ones are at stake, sparking a fierce confrontation that will not be ignored. A piece of Appalachian history is playing out on the stage, right in front of you with larger than life characters that are fable-like but startlingly real. They appear extreme because they lived life in the extreme — their survival depended on it.

It’s 1882 when the long-standing feud between Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy escalates from an angry lawsuit over ownership of a hog to a brutal fight at an election day celebration. Three of Randall’s sons fought with Anse’s brother Ellison, who ended up with 27 stab wounds and a bullet in his back. Anse took the law into his own hands, capturing the brothers to hold as prisoners until Ellison’s fate is determined. In the dead of night the boys’ mother Sally makes the four-mile trek across the river from Kentucky to the Hatfield cabin in West Virginia to plea for their release to the justice system. Storming the front door she is met with the animosity of Anse’s sons Johnse and Cap, and his other brother Valentine. It is preposterous that a woman alone would challenge a man, especially one as high standing as Devil Anse. But the men have underestimated the fierce determination driven by a mother’s love. They have also underestimated her intelligence and ingenuity.

Despite their gender difference, Sally and Anse are well-matched opponents. Both are tough, pragmatic realists, ferociously protective of family and home. And while social mores of the time and culture dictate that a woman take in stride many aspects of her wretched life, Sally is an unmovable pillar of courage in her resolve to save her sons. With every ounce of cleverness in her soul she strives to turn Anse from a villain of vigilante justice into a hero embracing civilized law. She is desperate for the feud to end and argues that while the pursuit of justice via the law may well entail bloodshed to re-establish order, bloodshed for the sake of revenge will only beget more bloodshed.

Tricia Matthews displays astonishing range, depth, and a good ole’ Appalachian brand of chutzpah in her stunning portrayal of the intrepid Sally. The role is both physically and mentally demanding, but Matthews carries it off flawlessly with stamina of iron and endless energy. Her magnificently heartrending Act II monologue will leave you breathless.

Michael Poisson as Devil Anse Hatfield gives an excellent performance as Sally’s formidable adversary. He captures the necessary tough and obstinate determination of Anse, but also capably lays open a heart hidden from view until Sally manages to pry it open. Portraying Anse’s two sons, Shaan Sharma as Johnse and Rusty Allen as Cap make a dynamic duo of Hatfield brothers continually at odds. Cap’s appetite for meanness and murder is offset by Johnse’s gentle nature and loathing of discord. The two play off each other well as this unlikely pair of siblings from a feuding family. Nicholas Piper is a sobering force as their conflicted uncle Valentine, gravely contemplating the conundrum of weighing justice against family loyalty.

Barter’s Stage Two is the perfect venue for this piece, and set designer Kevin Dudley makes effective use of this intimate space. It mimics the tight enclosure of a mountain cabin, yet through the backdrop and projected photos we sense the vastness of the deep, dark woods beyond it. The oversized images in the set represent the extreme conditions of the characters’ lives. Sound design by Tony Angelini using original music by Matt Martin enhances the haunting atmosphere. Lee Alexander Martin’s costumes are perfect, demonstrating a clear understanding of mountain culture of the time period. Color came from the nature that surrounded the characters, so muted browns, greens, and grays dominate. All clothing is practical, from Sally’s homespun dress to Anse’s wool trousers that accommodate a pistol holster strapped to his thigh.

Director Susanne Boulle has done a fine job bringing to life this piece of history from a woman’s perspective. The tension, palpable from the onset of the story, ebbs and flows with unsettling irregularity, keeping us enthralled throughout the play as to what the next move will be. Every character is completely fleshed out, working in ensemble to seamlessly weave together each element of the story.

A point of particular interest is that neither Anse nor Sally knows what instigated the dispute between Ellison and the McCoy sons. They have no way to get to the bottom of it, any chance of resolving differences obliterated by hot tempers, poor judgment, and impulsive aggression. Sadly, too many battles have begun this way. And maybe more to come unless we can learn lessons from historical tales, such as this one, that resonate across cultures and time periods.

How do we tell the villains from the heroes? Who are the devils? Who are the angels? An old African proverb states, “Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify

the hunter.” For this tale, Sally McCoy learned to write.

Sally McCoy runs at Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA through November 10.

For tickets and information contact 276-628-3991 or