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. West Virginia native Robert insists the trip represents a return home, even though he has lived in the D.C. area for years; Reginald, a North Carolinian turned Washingtonian, thinks home is where you live. (As a bonus, some incisive local humor dives into the thorny debate of whether suburban D.C. residents can actually claim the District as their own.)
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.
“West By God” literally lectures on these issues via an on-the-nose framing device, centered on a Georgetown professor (Susan Marie Rhea) who lands herself in hot water while firing back at the perception that Appalachia is full of ignorance and drugs. Still, her point hits home: Why is the vitriol directed toward rural America so often excused in modern discourse?
McCoy expands the narrative with a secondary story line, about a young woman (George Washington University sophomore Rachel Trauner, making her professional debut) who feels suffocated by her West Virginian trappings and the single mother (Sheri S. Herren) who’s afraid to let her go. The subplot never quite connects to the central story in a satisfying way, but Trauner commands the stage all the same, finely balancing her character’s wanderlust tendencies and wrenching anxieties.
The rest of the cast is similarly on point. 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 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.
West By God, by Brandon McCoy. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Set, Matthew J. Keenan; costumes, Sydney Moore; lighting, G. Ryan Smith; illustrations, Bailey Powell. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Through Oct. 20 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets: $41-$51. 202-265-3767 or keegantheatre.com.