A Western cowboy drama live on stage is a mighty rare thing, agrees Leroy Clark, former chair of performing arts at Wichita State University, who is directing the new adaptation of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” for the Forum Theatre.
Sure, Westerns were a staple of early Hollywood from the silent era on, Clark says. And so-called “horse operas” were so ubiquitous on 1950s television that they even had their own separate category in the Emmy Awards for a few years (the peak was 1959 with 26 Westerns in prime time in the same season).
But other than historical pageants, Westerns didn’t really translate to stage, likely because there was no room for horse chases, barroom brawls and other expected, if cliched, action.
Until now, that is. Jethro Compton, a young British playwright, decided to adapt Dorothy Johnson’s 1953 short story about a mild-mannered Eastern scholar forced to face down a murderous gunslinger that inspired the 1962 movie starring James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin. The play premiered to critical acclaim in London’s Park Theatre in 2014 and will have its Midwestern premiere this week at the Forum.
It missed being the American premiere by just one day, says the Forum’s artistic director, Kathryn Page Hauptman. A California troupe jumped the gun on them, so to speak.
“I was surprised by the play. It seems a unique experience because I don’t know of another one like it,” says director Clark, who oversaw WSU theater from 1990-2000 and is now retired.
“There are a lot of contemporary Westerns, like Sam Shepard’s ‘Fool for Love.’ But this takes us back to the frontier period of 1890. I really like the script. The writing is very strong. It deals seriously with subjects like murder, injustice, prejudice and the line between freedom and lawlessness,” Clark says. “I like the message. I like what it has to say about civilization, commitment, responsibility and courage.”
The playwright, a 27-year-old writer/producer from Cornwall who has been turning classic cinema into stage works for the past few years, acknowledges that, like most Brits, he has a fascination with the American Old West because it’s something exotic to his own lived history and experience. That’s not dissimilar to Americans’ fascination with British royalty, pomp and all things fairy tale.
“I’m fascinated by America, where everything is so similar and yet so different. That small degree of separation is something British people talk about. I love the universal nature of Westerns. They thematically connect with people from all cultures,” Compton wrote in an e-mail interview from Australia, where he’s currently working on another play.
“The thing that surprised me was the variety in story that appears throughout the genre. People have very clear ideas of what to expect from a Western. But the truth is, it’s a varied genre filled with wonderful, moving stories,” said Compton, who has since written three more stage Westerns as “The Frontier Trilogy.”
“‘Liberty Valance’ stood out to me as a story that captured the spirit and essence of Western cinema without requiring a number of the tropes: wide-open plains, horse chases, stagecoach robberies. People think of Westerns as being out of favor, but in truth, they have simply taken on another form.”
“Star Wars,” for example, is often described as a Western in outer space.
“Westerns don’t simply deal with cowboys, gunslingers, etc., but themes that an audience will always be able to relate to: growing old, love, hate, being an outsider, wanting change, fighting for change and, most importantly for me, hope,” Compton wrote.
In the Forum’s production, New York guest actor Martin Landry plays Ransome “Ranse” Foster (the James Stewart role), the scholar who arrives like a fish out of water in Twotrees, a hard-scrabble town in an unnamed Western state, in 1890. Kenneth Mitchell stars as Bert Barracune (John Wayne role), a cow wrangler who takes the newcomer under his wing. Shanna Berry plays Hallie Jackson (Vera Miles role), the tough, outspoken but sympathetic saloon owner that Ranse and Bert fall in love with. And Mark Anderson is Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a vicious outlaw determined not to let civilization, rules and fair play intrude on his lawless kingdom.
Also in the cast are Aaron Profit as a young black man working in the saloon who is like a brother to Hallie while becoming the target of racial tensions. Larry Hartley is the town marshal, and Shane Rogers, who becomes the show’s narrator, is a newspaperman witnessing the events. Townspeople include Michael Kilgore, C.L. Smet, Seth Rogers, Earl Martling, Russell Klingman, Rich Atwood and two Old Cowtown Museum re-enactors in full authentic gear, Russell Dodd and John Ingle.
While Ranse is the ostensible hero of the story, he’s not always a saint, says actor Landry.
“He is an extremely educated man in an uneducated town who is described as a little arrogant, distant and aloof when he arrives,” says Landry, who is also a musician and off-Broadway musical director. “He’s a drifter in the Old West who has to learn what his purpose is. He has a background in law and becomes a teacher. I like that he knows what he believes and will not back down. He has a moral compass and knows what’s right. He gives himself thoroughly to a just cause.”
Landry admits that he wasn’t much of a Western fan growing up but says this play has been a rewarding experience.
“What’s so great about it is that it’s not ‘just a Western.’ It is a lofty story about life and death that happens to be in a Western setting,” Landry says. “This is bold theater.”
‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’
What: Midwestern premiere (and second American premiere) by Forum Theatre of 2014 British stage adaptation of classic 1962 James Stewart/John Wayne Western
Where: Scottish Rite Center, 332 E. First
When: Preview at 8 p.m. Thursday, opens at 8 p.m. Friday and runs at 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday through March 12
Tickets: $23 Thursday evening and Saturday matinee, $25 Friday-Saturday evening; special $15 preview night. Optional pre-show catered dinner at 6:45 p.m. Friday-Saturday evening, $15. Call 316-618-0444 or visit www.forumwichita.com