Bobby (Kevin Hasser) is on a plane to visit his dying grandmother when his seatmate asks where he’s heading. “Home,” he says instinctively. But he lives in Silver Spring—he’s lived there for years. His seatmate, Reginald (DeJeanette Horne), pushes back. Bobby’s unfazed. West Virginia’s still home; as we see later, Bobby can list its symbols in a flash. (Nickname? Mountain state. Flower? Rhododendron. Song? “Official or unofficial?”) And in Bobby’s family, and hundreds of others, they call their home state “West by God Virginia,” because it’s “by the grace of God” they get to live in such a beautiful place.
West By God, which makes its world premiere at the Keegan Theatre, is “a story about home” by Keegan company member Brandon McCoy. The play digs into McCoy’s feelings both about “home” as a concept and his actual home—McCoy was raised in West Virginia, and says in a program note that he proudly remains allegiant to it. He’s tired of seeing it publicly disparaged and mocked, and hopes to probe the divide between urban and rural communities. To that end, it’s going on tour to the Mountain State after its run in D.C.
The show’s clear affection for West Virginia is literally in the background of all the action: The set’s contours evoke the state’s shape. But the show is clear-eyed about what McCoy’s home state struggles with. Calvin (Colin Smith), the only one of Bobby’s siblings to stay in West Virginia, has lost his job, and while he and his mother, Sophia (Rena Cherry Brown), insist that things have a way of working out, the pressure is apparent. Martha (Rachel Trauner), Bobby’s cousin, is desperate to see something outside of her small town. There’s nothing to do there; she’s scared of following in her mother’s footsteps, which only lead in circles around the same place. Her mother, Agnes (Sheri S. Herren), doesn’t see what’s so bad about that‚ but Martha’s restless.
Martha’s story and that of another black sheep, Bobby’s sister Bella (Susan Marie Rhea), are the play’s most interesting, if ultimately unsatisfying. Bella has already left. She’s living in D.C., a Georgetown professor who focuses on Appalachian Studies and speaks of home with authority and warmth, even though she’s estranged from her family. One of her lectures forms a frame for the play, with the audience in the position of her class; McCoy has her ask the group provocative questions about our perceptions of Appalachia and which groups of Americans are the most marginalized. Those insensitive questions later get her in trouble, but the script doesn’t seem to have an opinion on how high Bella’s moral ground was, both at work and in the incident that estranged her from her family, and it blows over without much resolution. Martha’s story also takes a dramatic turn, but we don’t see much of the emotional or situational fallout until a tidy bow is tied at the end.
The play’s strengths are in its depiction of life in the holler, where Agnes and Sophia, matriarchs of fatherless families, are pulling everything together—including each other—across gulfs of pride and hurt. Herren and Brown are both delights to watch onstage, embodying prickly, loving women who are trying their best to keep the faith in an economically depressed town. The easy chemistry between Sophia and Calvin is some of the play’s best work, and it’s a shame Bella’s on-the-nose soliloquies halt that momentum.
Bobby still loves where he grew up. It shaped him into who he is, and he didn’t leave out of spite. But the play is also honest about what West Virginia can and can’t offer its characters—if Bobby wants to make it as a writer, or Bella as a professor, they have to go elsewhere. Home isn’t a comprehensive balm for all things, but it is a landing pad where a person can anchor their sense of self. The places the characters cherished growing up continue to embrace them when they need to return.
To Oct. 20 at 1742 Church St. NW. $41–$51. (202) 265-3767. keegantheatre.com.