“Cowards die many times before their deaths…The valiant never taste of death but once.” - Shakespeare
You can almost feel the prairie wind blowing the tumbleweeds past the rustic saloon in The Attic’s latest production of, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Directed by Kathy Paladino, this is a tale of one educated man’s journey West and how, after facing impossible odds, he inadvertently becomes a western legend that changes his future in ways he never expected. Playing from September 28th through October 21st , opening night yesterday resulted in long ovations and much praise.
Despite its familiar title and basic plot, this recent stage adaptation by British playwright Jethro Compton takes strikingly different aim from the Dorothy M. Johnson’s original short novel that inspired the classic John Ford film by the same name. But in reality, any stage version taken from either would have mighty boots to fill. Wisely, Compton’s production walks in its own path and by doing so, successfully hits the mark, using the original story simply as a springboard, creating a highly atmospheric and visceral retelling that audaciously takes a forgotten genre and makes it resonate loud and clear.
Taking our seats, we are dropped straight into the year 1910 in the little backwater town of Twotrees: a whisky-drinking, boot-clomping, gun-toting, cowboy-drawling, saloon door-swinging Wild West town with at least one dark and smoky saloon. In the middle of the floor sits a modest casket with a bouquet of prickly pear blossoms draped on top. A bluesy country hymn is being sung in the background, accompanied by two acoustic guitars, and a veiled woman who has been lingering at the head of the coffin suddenly leaves the scene. Enter Senator Foster, who is a well-known, respected politician, and has traveled all the way from Washington to this sleepy, dusty town to pay his respects to this mysterious old cowboy. He is recognized in the bar and approached by Reporter Jack Dowitt (played by Rick Werblin) for an interview, but counters that the last time he was in the town was over 20 years ago. (Werblin, by the way, also acts as Narrator).
Now flashback two decades earlier to the year 1890: First, we meet hardscrabble Hallie Jackson (Stephanie Garrison), who has dedicated her life to a different den of lawlessness, namely the Prairie Belle Saloon she inherited. Thrust into this somewhat anachronistic milieu is Hallie’s only companion in the world, the “Reverend” Jo Mosten (sweetly played by Angela Watson. This role is sometimes cast as a Black man who functions as a sort of bar back caretaker).
Next we see cowboy gunslinger Bert Barricune (Michael J. Keeney) carrying into that same saloon a fresh greenhorn from the East who was found in the desert, badly beaten, bloodied and half-dead from exposure. After they successfully revive him, he explains that he was on his way West from New York and got beaten when trying to defend another Black traveler on the road. Turns out the stranger, whose name is Ransome Foster (Mark Tillman), was accosted by the most notorious gang of desperados in that territory, a gang led by an outlaw called Liberty Valance.
Foster’s only possessions are just a few books – mostly law books, but classics like Shakespeare are among them. As Foster recovers, he is by every definition a tenderfoot, but well-educated, an ideologist and also a “barber’s clerk,” meaning, a bit conceited and full of himself. But he believes in the betterment of mankind through education and is amazed with not only the photographic memory of “Reverend” Jo, but the contrasting illiteracy prevalent in the whole town.
The Reverend’s welcoming smile, warmth and out-reached hand is just what Foster needs at this point, showing that even in the grisly West, a little kindness can be found. Weeks later in the story, however, as misfortune befalls her, it shakes her friends and the audience to the core.
He continues to encourage Jo to educate herself and to leave the town for a better life, and soon, with Hallie's approval, an impromptu school is set up there in the saloon. As both the fame of the school and the love/hate relationship between Foster and Hallie grow, Barricune returns, burning with jealousy, and angrily engages Foster with a dire warning… “education brings rules and the law brings more government,” explaining that Liberty Valance, the outlaw, definitely does not want anyone bringing education to the community he already dominates with crime and intimidation. Ignoring that foreboding, Foster and Barricune continue to vie over the heart of Hallie as the assured imminent violence of Liberty Valance’s reckoning looms over all of them in town.
The acting is incredibly emotive, from the point where Michael J. Keeney is stealing your heart as the tough talking Cowboy with a soft soul, and then bringing you to tears with a simple tremble of his lip, to Mark Tillman and Stephanie Garrison with their sparky “Beatrix and Benedict” style romance. Much like a typical Western film, a small town crush relationship blossoms between Hallie and the unlikely Foster – but the explosive bombast that accompanies produces cheeky, insatiable on-stage chemistry between the pair.
Keeney’s Bert is a cowboy through and through— “I’m the best shot from Twotrees to Mexico, but only because I haven’t been to Mexico.” As an ex-rancher in cowboy country myself in younger years, I can safely say that Keeney perfectly embodies Bert, and creates a heroic role that shows not all good cowboys wear white hats. An active Actor/Stunt Choreographer throughout Orange County, one can also see right off his familiarity with handguns. He twirls a gun as good as Sammy Davis Jr. did, or for that matter anyone in “The Quick and the Dead.” Keeney was a real impression to me in his authentic overall presentation as the story’s moral beacon, and seemed a perfect rival to Tillman’s Foster.
Tillman, whose character parallels the James Stewart character in the 1962 film, but with a slightly different personality, is exemplary as the fish-out-of-water educator, who wants to stake out a life of adventure in the untamed West, and as bar owner, Hallie Jackson, Stephanie Garrison is completely believable as the strong-willed, plain-spoken woman with little experience in the ways of the heart. Ms. Garrison definitely portrays a woman of the west, a tough-talking tomboy who is rough around the edges and can match Barricune drink for drink. Even though Hallie only bathes on special occasions, she does clean up well, and looks fantastic in her beautiful, period-accurate dress when she finally decides to become more feminine.
But without a doubt, Robert Dill stole the show with his spell-binding portrayal of Liberty Valance. Valance is everything you want him to be – the epitome of bad – a villain with a cruel laugh, a quick tongue and a threatening stance. It's the inevitable educating of the populace, especially Jo, that incites Valance to come after Foster, who is threatening his criminal way of life. But Valance uses a cat and mouse psychology, toying with his victims. He is actually a thoughtful and articulate man, easily the most literate of any of the characters, perhaps even Foster. He uses words like "trivialize" and "idyllic" and actually sits down and has a drink with his targets before dealing with them. Valance explains, "Laws, education, and equality are not good for my business…because knowledge is power.”
Foster describes him as “a vicious dog that’s turned feral,” as you see him decked out in his range-duster longcoat, creating the illusion that he is in fact the “Bill Sykes” of the West. As Valance, Dill commands the stage with his gripping presence, playing his character as a man for whom instilling fear and terror is simply, business. And we garner from his portrayal that Liberty Valance enjoys his work.
In only two scenes in the play, he creates a vile, magnetic villain, who is as terrifying as he is alluring. It is impossible for the audience to tear their eyes away from him. Valance reminds them how, just by his presence, they could all be living their last moments. No vicious killer in a western I’ve ever seen behaves the way Compton's Valance does. In addition to his flowery rhetoric, he drinks civilly out of shot glasses instead of the bottle, plays an amiable dice game with Jo, then turns her over to his gang cronies to be lynched outside to the nearest tree.
Then, in the showdown scene, he chats casually with Foster about how he is going to shoot him down in cold blood, but actually places his gun on the table and walks around the room while he talks and talks, leaving Foster free to take it away from him. But…inexplicably, he doesn't. It's a bizarre scene, probably the most civilized showdown in the history of westerns. Valance looks like a frightening killer - but what he says and does are not conducive with what we expect from a bad guy. We also never see Valance do any of his dirty deeds on stage, which gives us no real first-hand reason to hate him. The initial beating that he inflicts on Foster occurs before the action begins and the only other act of violence that happens does so off stage, perpetrated not by Valance, but by his two masked henchmen.
Marshal Johnson, played by Wayne Arnold, does a remarkable depiction of the town’s peace officer, who doesn't care who shoots who in his town, so long as it's a fair fight. There is no formally enforced law and order in a town like Twotrees. "Out here a man settles his own problems." Marty Miller serves as his faithful deputy, who ends up selling Foster a gunbelt for the final showdown.
The Ensemble members include Andrew Aguilar, Dianna Beckman and Jack Mills, with Aguilar and Mills playing Valance’s gang. The Musicians, Frank Paladino and Sarah Rohrer created a realistic sound of the time period, singing old-time hymnals and country melodies in the interludes.
Director Paladino’s good eye for motivated movement and setting stage pictures is prominent in the show, ably assisted by Jordan Broberg, with much praise on her ability to recreate the feisty, independent spirit of the old West. Every scene is tight and impactful, retaining dramatic power. The script seems almost joyously reveling in its yarn-spinning. Compton’s love of this genre is evident and the whole production has an early-days-of-Hollywood look to the set, adding the realism of that era.
The set, by Jim Huffman, transports the audience completely to the age of the gunslinger. Mr. Huffman has crafted an old west authentic saloon that has high production value, complete with props that have strong attention to detail, giving the actors a proper first-rate playground. The set of the local bar manages to serve all scenes well. The author presents a view of the outside world by way of context offered through dialogue, as the play’s key scenes stack up at the bar (like the whiskies).
But it is the on-point costuming of Gordon Buckley which allows the world of pretend to look genuine. From the well-worn wares of the cowboys to the prim and proper suits of the town’s folk, the costuming serves to inform the audience of status and how the characters see themselves. Lighting Design is by Austin Schroeter. Stage Manager is Marty Miller.
Accolades to the cast and crew who bring this show to life. The very act of sitting and watching a classic western on stage in this very high tech society, whose genre is almost extinct, feels nothing if not therapeutic. I consider it a first-rate night out to the theatre.
This show is Highly, Highly Recommended! Desperados and tenderfoots alike should all see this show, and as of today, almost three weeks remain, with shows Friday & Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm. But please, do leave your spurs at home. https://attictheater.yapsody.com/
The Show Report