The great American Westerns with quick-on-the draw, gun-slinging cowboys and bigger-than-life outlaws are hard to find on the big screen or television these days, let alone on stage. However, TheatreWorks in New Milford has the distinction of presenting the East Coast premiere of Jethro Compton’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Here’s a play that really has something for everyone. It has drama, plenty of action, social significance and a love story. Add to this, the production directed by Richard Pettibone is so good that people should high tail out of their recliners and mosey on over to their phones and quickly make their reservations before the show is sold out. It’s that good.
The story itself is full of contrast with dark pessimism and bright optimism. The characters are fully developed and performed well with complexities, flaws, and quiet heroism. A guitar strumming cowboy adds to the western ambiance, but don’t expect to hear the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song bearing the same title of the play. There have been all types of reasons why the song, originally written for the movie never made it to the screen and it hasn’t made it to the theater either. However, the lyrics to that song pretty much sum up the story’s plot. A good man carrying a law book arrives in town and the bad guy ends up dead.
One thing about Westerns, there were good guys and bad guys and everyone knew who was who. In the play, Liberty Valance bullies someone and a scholarly man from the East intervenes and is beat up and left for dead. Filled with contemporary issues such as bullying and racism, as well as dealing with the importance of an education, this play and production are extremely timely.
James Dietter plays scholar Ransome Foster with subtle dignity. Ali Bernhardt as Hallie Jackson, the love interest between two men is just as powerful a force in her overalls as she is in her pretty frock. Francis A. Daley’s performance as sharpshooter Liberty Valance is fearsomely mean and confident. Daley, tall and keen and decked out in a long black coat, is very good at being bad. Mark Feltch as good guy Bert delivers a strong performance and Gary Cook as Reverend/Jim presents a heart-wrenching and memorable characterization. Adding to this superbly portrayed western are: Jonathan Ross and Tom Libonate as well as John Bolster and Rufus de Rahm. Robert Vaughn’s voice is used as the narrator.
Set in the Prairie Belle Saloon, in Twotrees, America between 1890 and 1910, Scott Wyshynski’s set design captures the true flavor a western saloon, swinging half doors and all. Lesley Neilson-Bowman’s costumes are wild west perfect and John Bolster’s guitar playing accents the production with authenticity. Richard Pettibone’s sound effects and the lighting with Scott Wyshynski are well conceived. Sonny Osborne was assistant director for this production, which plays through Oct. 8. Box office: 860-350-6863.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]