By Daniel Skora
Westerns, you would probably imagine, are not one of the genres that can be easily translated onto the stage. They became popular in the movies because they creating an Old West that was defined by easily recognizable stock characters and images that were visually striking and exciting. One such image that made Westerns what they are was the sight of thundering hooves being pushed to their limits across a vast, rock-studded vista by cowboys hell-bent either in pursuit of or to escape from some threatening danger. Not exactly something that can be portrayed on the stage with any kind of realism.
But Westerns matured, like all things eventually must, and the stories they told became more character driven and psychologically complex. In 1953 author Dorothy M. Johnson published a short story that was as much about real people and the all-too-human dilemmas they faced as it was about cowboys, horses, and gunplay. Hollywood took Johnson’s story, kept the title, gave it cinematic flash and dash, added big name stars, and had a hit on their hands. Some 61 years after Johnson’s short story appeared, British writer Jethro Compton adapted it for the stage, and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is currently having its Michigan premier in a gripping and entertaining production at The Tipping Point Theatre.
True to its western roots, at its heart “Liberty Valance” contains a clear delineation between good and evil. It also contains some issues, however, that give the story a kind of moral murkiness. Ransome Foster (David Bendena) is a bookish Easterner whose travels unexpectedly land him in the single-saloon town of Twotrees. Hallie Jackson (Hallie Bee Bard) is the owner of the Prairie Belle Saloon and a woman hardened by the frontier. Not many in this whiskey town are able to read, so Ransome begins teaching some of the locals the pleasures to be gotten from reading a good book. One of the townsfolk who shows particular promise is Jim Mosten (Dez Walker), a black man with the gift of an almost perfect memory. Also hanging around the Prairie Belle is Bert Barricune (Jim Porterfield), a rancher who has loved and admired Hallie for many years but now finds himself taking a backseat to the new guy in town.
And then there’s Liberty Valance (Patrick Loos), a cruel, vicious man who terrorizes the townspeople at will. In a bit of a twist, Valance is actually the most articulate of all the play’s characters, waxing philosophically about his station in life as a killer and why those around him are deserving of the brutality he bestows upon them. The local Marshall (nicely played by Dan Jaroslaw who knows how to wear a cowboy hat, and of all the actors in the cast looks the most like he belongs in a western) treads a fine line between being the town’s law enforcement officer and doing whatever he can to remain uninvolved. Stebert Davenport plays a journalist who comes to town looking for a story as well as several of the ensemble characters. A gunfight at the end where one man will live and the other die is inevitable, for Valance lets no man live who crosses his path and Ransome is bound and determined to stand up to him.
The first act of the show has many lighthearted moments, much of the humor is the result of the new environment Ransome finds himself in. In the wake of a senseless murder, the second act becomes marked by tension, drama and perhaps the only true answer to the question of who really was “the man who shot Liberty Valance”?
“Liberty Valence” may be a western, but it has contemporary sensibilities. Its story is one of love, courage, and sacrifice. Tipping Point’s production is well cast and evocative of the west we have come to know from the movies, from the batwing doors that theatre patrons must pass through to get to their seats, to the rustic bar that provides the set’s focal point.
“Liberty Valance” is directed by Angie Kane Ferrante. Set design and properties are by Monika Essen. Lighting design is by Rachel Nardecchia, while sound design comes courtesy of Sonja Marquis.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” runs through December 18th. Tickets are available online at www.tippingpointtheatre.com or at the theatre’s box office, which is open Mon. through Fri. 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and 90 minutes prior to all performances, based on availability. Tipping Point Theatre is located at 361 E. Cady Street in Northville, telephone number 1.248.347.0003.