Brandon McCoy’s WEST BY GOD stands tall at the divide of rural and urban America
Snowshoe Mountain, Morgantown and the New River Gorge Bridge all co-star in Brandon McCoy’s “West By God,” a West Virginia love letter punctuated with postcard scenery. Seeing those images projected across the Keegan Theatre set should entice audiences to schedule a West Virginia excursion — perhaps right after booking a return trip to their own hometowns.
That’s because “West By God” succeeds not only as an unofficial West Virginia tourism campaign but also as a humorous, heartfelt meditation on the nature of home. The idea arises early, during an exchange between neurotic aspiring writer Robert (Kevin Hasser) and Reginald (DeJeanette Horne), his seatmate on a flight from Washington to Charleston.
It’s a conversation with clear resonance for playwright McCoy, himself a West Virginia transplant who has put down D.C. roots. This world-premiere production, which also will be staged at Marshall University this winter, sends Robert back to his hometown so he can make peace with his dying grandmother. The somber occasion is lifted by the colorful characters on hand, including Robert’s superstitious mother, Sophia (Rena Cherry Brown), and his out-of-work brother, Calvin (Colin Smith).
Family drama ensues, as characters pick at the wounds of traumas past. But McCoy and director Jeremy Skidmore also are mining their coal country story for bigger ideas. Matthew J. Keenan’s set, with its backdrop of dilapidated fencing, suggests a place that’s seen better days. Rural economic plight looms large as the play explores the ugly collision of urban elitism and middle America stereotypes.
Hasser imbues Robert with vulnerability and uncanny comic timing. Smith brings wit and warmth to Calvin, a figure who could’ve fallen into caricature. Brown is a hoot as the Cincinnati Reds-obsessed matriarch, and Susan Marie Rhea adds unexpected layers to her under-fire lecturer.
“Home is where the heart is,” Robert says late in the play. “But it’s also where the pain is.” In processing his feelings about his home state, McCoy takes some of the sting off the West Virginia stigma. As urban and rural America remain divided, “West By God” represents an admirable step in the direction of empathy.