Young British playwright Jethro Compton may be just the one we've been waiting for. The one who might resuscitate – nay, resurrect – the moribund, neglected theater genre known as the “oater,” a.k.a., the “cowboy” play. If you like westerns, saddle up and gallop over to Stages Repertory Theatre where Compton's worthy stage adaptation of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is raising clouds of star dust.
The “western” has been a staple of the movies from its prehistory. Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), shot in the wilds of New Jersey, was the first movie blockbuster, running a whopping 12 minutes. A decade later, The Squaw Man (1914), based on Edwin Royle's 1903 stage play, was legendary director Cecil B. DeMille's inaugural film, and one of the first feature-length movies shot in Hollywood. RKO's Cimarron (1931), adapted from Edna Ferber's giant kiss to the Oklahoma land rush, was the first western to win Best Picture. Forever, it seems, the cinema has seared those iconographic images of our national myth into our collective consciousness – good guys in white hats, chases on horseback, transcontinental railroads, stagecoaches, gunfights, Indian battles, Monument Valley exteriors, cattle stampedes. But the theater has never quite gotten its act together.
Other than Puccini's opera The Girl of the Golden West (1910) or Lynn Riggs' Green Grow the Lilacs (1930), the talky precursor to singing Oklahoma (1943), the wild west has been terribly neglected by the theater. Maybe it's the wide open spaces and all those horses. I mean, really, when was the last time anyone ever saw a live horse galloping full throttle on stage, except in 1899 in that phenomenal production, by all accounts, of Lew Wallace's Ben Hur?
Myths without flying horses are paltry at best, but Compton has pulled off a feat worthy of John Ford, dean of American movie westerns. He has taken the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, pre-eminent woman writer of westerns and Indian culture, broadly adapted by Ford and his team into his immaculate late-career movie (1962) which starred Hollywood icons John Wayne and James Stewart, and condensed the tale into more intimate terms. Everything takes place in Hallie's saloon. No dusty main streets, no townsfolk, no drunken newspaper editor or country doctor and no horses. But plenty of philosophizing, guzzling, and noodling around the edges. There hasn't been this much boozing onstage since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Act I sets up the antihero, tenderfoot Ranse (David Matranga), beaten senseless offstage by psychotic bad guy Liberty Valance (Adam Noble), and then nursed back to health by saloon gal Hallie (idyllically earthy Bree Welch), best girl of laconic cowboy/gunslinger Bert (a manly and taciturn Josh Morrison). Ranse exemplifies the civilized east (New York City), democracy in language, progressive thought, snowflake. He's no man of action, until he has no choice. Slightly priggish, he quotes Shakespeare, and soon starts a school to teach these dust-clogged townsfolk how to read. Smug and above it all, he's ripe for a beating. But this city slicker worms his way into Hallie's heart. Civilization is a wonderful thing.
Embossed by Anthony Barilla's eerie, atmospheric music; the splintery planked-and-shuttered wood setting by Jodi Bobrovsky; and the kerosene lamp lighting by Clint Allen, we forgive the act's windiness, for director Kenn McLaughlin supplies a steady thrum of tension. Any moment now, Valance is going to barge through the upstage doors, guns ablazing, out for Ranse's hide. And we're constantly amazed by Welch's feisty portrayal. She slugs back shots of rotgut, swears like a longshoreman, and seems perfectly capable of taking out Valance all by herself. How was the West won? By the likes of Welch.
Act I is also redeemed, practically sanctified, by Atseko Factor's beatific performance as Jim “The Reverend” Mosten, Hallie's black bar back and family retainer. He's a sweet savant with a photographic memory. Rendered in subtle, provocative hues by Factor, his shocking demise leaves an undeniable hole in the drama.
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Though marred by unnecessary psychological exposition, Act II accelerates like a tumbleweed as it skitters to its ironic conclusion. Clouds cover the American dream: Bert loses his true love, Ranse is entombed in guilty myth, Hallie compromises. Evil is vanquished, but at what price?
In Stages' production, Matranga (as very good guy Ranse) and Noble (as very bad guy Liberty) switch roles halfway through the run, so each actor gets to play his polar opposite. Tickets are half price once you've seen the play, and it might be fun to see these two very capable actors go wild in such divergent parts, but I fear Compton has decided my fate. One viewing is enough, except for the reward of re-watching Welch and Factor sail through the play like prairie schooners in fifth gear.
In Compton's gritty retelling, the American West wasn't won so much as it was accommodated. But if you love westerns, this play, marvelously atmospheric and taut as a sidewinder, is one sure shot.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 25. 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $21 to $65.