The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is a film title you might recognize. Some sort of legend, goin’ back a passel of years to 1962. The stage version, now unfolding at The Playhouse, has elements different from the movie; Britain’s Jethro Compton has given Dorothy M. Johnson’s 1953 story a few new spins. Most noticeably with a racist sub-plot.That is one of several ways which make clear that this play often takes itself seriously.
The cast and director Jeff Horger convincingly make it vital and fascinating, rarely veering into exaggeration. A Western seems unlikely as a live experience except maybe for re-enactment shoot-outs in tourist towns. Gunplay is not the focus here; it only occurs once, on stage. A more grim act of violence is defused by having it off stage, a dark disturbing event.
Jim Othuse’s superb set makes it clear that we’re dealing with a real world. The atmosphere feels genuine which also matches Compton’s sturdy, cliché-free dialogue. In fact, some people in the tight little town of Twotrees even make fun of standard Western myths.
Badly beaten, idealistic young New Yorker Ransome Foster is carried into town by Bert Barricune. Foster tried to help a black man being beaten by a wild bunch led by Liberty Valence. Foster is given shelter by equally young, cantankerous Hallie Jackson, a woman who’s made a life for herself by running a bar. A black man, Jim “Reverend” Mosten, works for her. In time Hallie and Ransome can’t help being attracted to each other. That distresses gruff and ornery Bert, who’s made no secret of his feeling for Hallie. He can keep some secrets, however. Ransome becomes part of the community, teaching people to read. Thus becoming a threat to the status quo in which Valence rules with unchecked violence, despite there being a town Marshall. After Valence and his gang string up Jim, Ransome vows to take justice into his own hands. You know what that means, given the title.
Compton creatively weaves in several inventive elements including Shakespeare’s words which keep cropping up, most often spoken by The Narrator. They dovetail. Such as “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once…” Plus something from John Donne (“Death Be Not Proud…”). And The Bible, scripture which underscores Reverend’s saintly persona.
The writing makes some good points. Given that Valence wants to sustain his sway, no wonder he’s itchy. See, his dialogue makes it clear that teaching people to read could lead them to being better informed, worried that knowledge is power, maybe even imposing government. After all, in a town this size, everyone’s connected. That means Liberty, whose name implies freedom to do whatever he wants, could lose that freedom. Bert, by the way, is the only actual cowboy; he hires out to ranchers. Also observed is how gunfights could flourish and be acceptable; Marshall Johnson explains that there is no ordinance against men killing each other when they are armed and able to defend themselves.
Having Ransome be an outsider upsetting community order sets up a well-worn but worthy theme.As for how he’s written, his earnest innocence always looks right, even if his character doesn’t feel complex. Dennis Stessman does him justice, a likeable chap. As for other characters, they also stay more simple than complicated. Standing out, Isaac Reilly’s Bert solidly comes across as genuine, a person with real feelings beneath a rough exterior.
Compton makes Jim not only flawless but a shining example of goodness. His death seems nearly Christ-like. Chad Cunningham in that role has true presence, strength, kindness and nobility.
Hallie seems a stock character. An Annie Oakley without a rifle. Necessarily tough in a tough town at a tough time, defined by Sidney Readman’s capable performance as a girl covering up youthful uncertainties. As for Liberty, his dialogue in two scenes suggests some degree of intelligence and reason beneath his menace, but, as played by Brennan Thomas on opening night, sinister non-stop nastiness felt cartoon-like.
Given that this tale takes place out yonder, much of the dialogue is delivered with suggestions of regional accents, sometimes making it less than completely clear.
Playwright Compton, barely 30 years old now, actually wrote more plays akin to this one in The Frontier Trilogy, plus an adaptation of Shakespeare‘s Macbeth relocated to the First World War. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jethro_Compton or http://www.jethrocomptonltd.co.uk/
Director Horger keeps everything moving with vigor and a sense of earnest style. He is also to be applauded for his program notes about this period in America. He perceptively explores the meanings beneath the surface and how they resonate beyond the boundaries of the planks and boards on stage, beyond the invisible lines that demarcate states. Reaching out to a nation to which we pledge allegiance, vowing liberty and justice for all.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence runs through Mar. 12, at Howard Drew Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Thurs–Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sunday: 2 p.m. Tickets $22-$36