“. . .from the moment a girl gets to be full grown the very first thing she learns, when two men go out to face each other only one returns.”—Gene Pitney
One man represents civilization, order, justice. The other represents violence, repression, darkness. The one who stands is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Jethro Compton and based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson and is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
If you have ever seen the film version of this story, blank it from your mind. While a few elements from the original story made it into the movie, it took many liberties in terms of names, characters, and characterizations. Compton’s script certainly is not without merit. It has a methodical build to a climax in each act and some compelling interactions. But it’s also very talky with little action and takes too long to get where it’s going. Fortunately, on the whole, this cast is able to make the most out of the script’s strengths.
Jeff Horger’s direction is pretty admirable. His actors give solid to strong performances, the beats are well developed, and he crafts two decidedly chilling scenes with the malevolent Valance.
The supporting cast does a workmanlike job in the performance, bolstered by an especially strong effort from Chris Berger who has quiet dignity as the Narrator and a good turn from Christopher Scott as the useless, but calculating, Marshal Johnson.
Dennis Stessman’s take on Ransome Foster is a rather far cry from the clean-cut hero. He does have a good heart and courage with his teaching the townspeople how to read and his willingness to stand up to Valance, but he’s actually an unlikable prick on the whole. It’s obvious he considers himself smarter than the rest of the citizenry of TwoTrees and considers the town dull and backwoodsy. This duality in nature makes for a rather interesting character study, but I thought Stessman was a little too controlled in his take on Foster. He did a good job showing Foster’s intelligence and spine, but he had a very tight rein on Foster’s emotions and there were moments that could have been made stronger with some bolder emotional choices.
There’s no subtlety to Sydney Readman’s portrayal of Hallie Jackson, the saloon owner, and that is just right for the character. Hallie is a no-nonsense, blunt, in your face type of gal in order to survive in the harsh environment of the West and Ms Readman communicates that attitude by getting in the face of people who annoy her and her sharp speech. But she is also capable of presenting Hallie’s softer emotions and her mourning of the death of a dear friend is one of the play’s most touching moments.
Isaac Reilly fully embodies the role of Bert Barricune. You can’t help but be charmed by his laconic speech and respect his toughness. Reilly brings fantastic swagger and confidence to the role and he is every bit the cowboy. Reilly also has superior comedic timing as he gets some of the play’s best zingers.
Chad Cunningham darn near steals the show as Jim Mosten, Hallie’s jack of all trades. Nicknamed the Reverend due to his ability to quote the Bible, chapter and verse, Mosten is the illiterate with the photographic memory as he hears something once and never forgets. Cunningham brings a gregariousness and openness to Mosten that makes him feel like your best friend. He also brings great bravery to the role as he calmly faces down Liberty Valance in a game of Liar’s Dice at the climax of Act I.
If I had been casting this show I might have overlooked Brennan Thomas for the role of Liberty Valance due to his elegance and I would have been an idiot for doing so. Thomas brings a calm savagery to the well-read and well-spoken villain, always managing to let just enough of the animal peek through to leave no doubt that anyone he’s talking with is in deadly peril. Though he only appears in two scenes, the wait is well worth it as the Valance scenes are the best in the show.
I give this play high marks on the technical aspects. Jim Othuse does it again with his saloon set from the old fashioned wood building to the swinging doors on the center aisle. Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are just right from the classy garb of the gentleman Foster to the tomboy working clothes of Hallie to the riverboat gambler look of Valance. John Gibilisco’s sounds are truly well done, especially the evil music that plays whenever Valance appears.
I thought the energy and cue pickups were lacking a bit in the play’s first act, but this picked up in the second act. Projection was also an issue, but the cast also managed to largely overcome this difficulty in Act II.
Due to its talky nature, this isn’t your typical western, but it does bring new depth to the battle of good vs evil. It’s far more than a tale about the hero battling the villain. It’s a story of civility breaking the law of the gun.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 12. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students. For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com. Parental discretion is advised due to some rough language. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Dodge Street in Omaha, NE.