Most people have long since relegated Westerns to the drama ash heap as something quaint and mostly cliched and nothing to take seriously because of overkill in the 1950s on TV.
But young British playwright Jethro Compton has struck gold, so to speak, by translating “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” from the silver screen back to the live stage with a dramatic resonance that’s compelling and surprisingly sophisticated.
Sure, it’s still a tale of good versus evil. But the motivations and characterizations are deeper, more layered, more thoughtful and more satisfying than you might expect from a nondescript upstart of a town somewhere on the fringes of civilization back in 1890.
The Forum Theatre’s version of this 2014 drama, which is the Midwestern premiere and only the second American production, is a period piece directed by Leroy Clark with fresh and immediate sensibilities while preserving the authenticity of history.
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Based on the 1953 short story by Dorothy Johnson that inspired the 1962 James Stewart/John Wayne/Lee Marvin movie, it’s a tale about a mild-mannered Eastern scholar forced to face down a murderous gunslinger over a racially motivated murder. The scholar is driven by both righteousness and revenge, the gunslinger by arrogance, entitlement and the fear of progress that would undermine his lawless kingdom.
It’s not just “black hat” versus “white hat.” There are many provocative shades of gray. It all comes down to a question of what’s more important: doing the right thing for the right reason or the end justifies the means.
Martin Landry, a guest actor from New York, is Ransome “Ranse” Foster, the scholar with a law background who is unsettled by the unvarnished crudity and violence of the frontier, but is mysteriously drawn to the unfettered freedom of such a lawless place. Landry, a tall drink of water who towers over the rest of the cast, plays Ranse as sensitive but not saintly. He’s sort of an accidental hero, wishing to do the right thing but prodded to action as much by love as by principle. Landry has a rich, resonant voice and an engaging presence.
Shanna Berry, a Kansas native who honed her skills with a decade in Chicago theater, is Hallie Johnson, the spunky, outspoken, thoroughly independent owner of the local saloon. Berry plays Hallie as an ambitious soul who channels her lack of education into hard work to prove herself. But secretly she has a curious mind just ready to be set free through learning to read. That’s what draws Ranse to her. Berry can be fun and flirty, but she compels us with her thunderous fury when grieved.
Mark D. Anderson, a veteran local actor, is the titular Liberty Valance, a vicious and cruel killer who is determined to keep his town from becoming too civilized with rules and laws and cramping his style. Anderson plays Valance as an educated man who is less of a physical brute and bully and more of a malevolent, menacing, posturing presence. He’s as much a psychological villain as a gunslinger. That’s an interesting interpretation, although Anderson is a little too subtle to be sufficiently intimidating. He seems more dislikable than dangerous.
Kenneth Mitchell is a sturdy, consistent presence as Bert Barricune, a modest, plainspoken cowpoke who rescues an injured Ranse at first and then ruefully watches as he becomes Bert’s rival for Hallie’s affections. Mitchell is ultimately heartbreaking as the quiet, unsung hero of the show.
And Aaron Profit is reliable and likable as Jim, a young black man working in the saloon who has become like a brother to Hallie. Jim’s intelligence and penchant for quick learning, thanks to Ranse, make him a target of bigotry that propels the story, and Profit gives Jim wisdom and dignity.
While the set by Ben Juhnke — a raw-wood interior of a saloon with walls that allow cracks of colored light to filter through — and beautifully moody lighting by Sean Roberson are a visual treat, there is a jolting anachronism in the backdrop. Instead of prairie, it’s a forest of green, leafy trees, leaving us to wonder just which Western state it’s set in.
Be forewarned: There are loud gunshots and some earthy language.
‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’
What: Midwestern premiere by Forum Theatre of 2014 British stage adaptation of classic 1962 James Stewart/John Wayne Western
Where: Scottish Rite Center, 332 E. First St.
When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Fri. and 2 and 8 p.m. Sat.
Tickets: $23-$25. Optional pre-show catered dinner at 6:45 p.m., $15. Call 316-618-0444 or visit www.forumwichita.com.