The economic and social plight of America’s white rural working class has been the subject of recent blockbuster books from J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to Educated, by Tara Westover. Now this disheartened population has become the focus of DC-area playwright Brandon McCoy, a native of West Virginia, who looks homeward in his new and well-intentioned West By God. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore, this timely work is receiving its world premiere production at The Keegan Theatre.
McCoy weaves together the stories of West Virginians who love their native state but nearly suffocate amidst its lost opportunities. The elders Sophia (Rena Cherry Brown) and Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) long ago reconciled themselves to narrow lives as mothers trying to do the best for their children in trying circumstances. Jobs have disappeared from their coal-rich region, and along with the mines, service industries have withered away, too. Their offspring chafe against low prospects and a rote faith that God will never give them more challenges than they can handle. Struggling with their cherished heritage and deep-seated sense of identity, the younger generation must seek brighter prospects in the urban world beyond.
Robert (Kevin Hasser) heads home to West Virginia for a last visit with his dying grandmother. A gentle-souled writer, he now lives in the Washington, DC area, where he works as a coffee shop manager as he struggles to find an authentic tale to author – one that will reflect the sights and sounds of his rural upbringing. His sister Bella (Susan Marie Rhea), a Georgetown University academic, has clearly found her voice. Her new book on the disenfranchised people of Appalachia – starring her own family – is about to be published. Like other authors who wrap their loved ones into a bigger story, Bella knows there will be a price to pay: further alienation from her brothers and mother. After grandmother’s funeral, Robert, Bella, and their brother Calvin (Colin Smith), the only sibling still living in West Virginia, unearth wry reminiscences, gut-wrenching memories and unresolved issues stemming from their own father’s death two years before.
The story unfolds in brief snippets as the actors navigate Matthew J. Keenan’s interesting set composed of rough barn boards that together take the shape of West Virginia itself. An aging sofa – the family ‘hearth’ – dominates center stage facing an unseen television set. Sophia reigns from here – forever absorbed in her beloved and bedeviled Cincinnati Reds. She routinely chastises her kids with a tersely spoken “Language!” every time they curse, but avoids difficult conversations. “Not now,” she utters, often disappearing back into her televised baseball games.
Around the struggles of Sophia and her children, two other dramas play out. Robert’s new acquaintance Reginald (DeJeanette Horne), a North Carolinian now also living in the DC area, genially prods Robert to think about the elements of his identity. West Virginia neighbor Agnes is terrified at the idea that her 17-year-old daughter Martha (Rachel Trauner) is straining to leave home.
While the cast performs admirably, one wishes McCoy would give them more insightful dialogue to work with. At the outset, Bella raises big questions to her Appalachian Studies students. How do we decide who to marginalize? Why do we decide who will be poor? But these fundamental queries are not developed or explored in the lives of McCoy’s characters, leaving us somewhat hungry after what promises to be a full buffet of ideas. Nonetheless, some actors are given more to do than others, and they run with it. Even with her minced words, Rena Cherry Brown is at turns hilarious and poignant as Sophia. Her physical energy and focus contribute a steely backbone to McCoy’s drama. Newcomer Rachel Trauner, a sophomore at The George Washington University, provides a terrific mix of fear and needle-sharp determination as she faces her mother, and the world. Colin Smith’s performance as Calvin is low-key but forceful – he holds important information about the family, and doles it out carefully.
McCoy, who is currently Playwright in Residence at the Keegan, is committed to fostering dialogue about the urban/rural divide. No doubt it is an increasingly important conversation. Following its DC premiere, West By God will travel to West Virginia as the pilot project in the KeeganConnects tour. In January 2020, the play will be staged at Marshall University in Huntington over two weekends, with audience talkbacks and community engagement events offered in collaboration with other local theatres and non-profit organizations.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.