Falcon‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Mirrors Contemporary Assault Against Liberty
Posted On June 28, 2017
Review by Ken Stern of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Falcon Theatre
Timing is everything, in theatre and in life. And in a production an audience, cast, director, and playwright can peel back numerous layers of meaning. Go see Falcon Theatre‘s regional premiere of Jethro Compton’s 2014 play, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, playing through February 11th. It offers a tale for our times, when again the bully is dressed in black, beats up on the little guy, and likes the idea of a lynching now and then.
This is not your grandparents’ Liberty Valance, which starred John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin. The main characters were white. Not so this play, where “Reverend” Jim Mosten (Derek Snow), quiet and stolid, is almost center stage, barkeep and “swamper” (custodian). He is called “Reverend” because hearing a Bible verse once, he memorizes it.
Compton opens the play with an unconscious Ransome Foster (Craig Branch), laid out on the saloon’s bar. Having interfered with a gang’s mauling of an old black fella, Foster was badly beat up by Liberty Valance’s gang. This backstory was not in the movie.
Liberty Valance is staged in the Prairie Bell Saloon, in Twotrees, America, in 1890. The Falcon set is impeccable: bar with wall of liquor bottles behind it in one corner, swinging doors center stage rear, a couple of tables and chairs for cowboys to sit behind, all walls with wainscoting, off white patterned wallpaper (scenic design: Tara Williams and Ted Weil, who also designed lighting and sound).
Branch, as the slight, easterner Foster, the Man in the play’s title, is at the center of the play. Branch’s Foster is the outsider good doer, a city slicker, but a hearty drinker. He insists on teaching Jim to read, literacy being power, and opens a school that includes bar owner Hallie Jackson (Erin Carr), who decides to learn English even though she speaks American already. Carr offers a no-nonsense, in-charge, takes-a -bath-once-a-year, entirely-on-her-own saloon owner performance.
That the handsome, battered, tough, and good hearted gunslinger Bert Barricune (Allen Middleton) already loves and has intentions for Hallie is immaterial, a cliché side story.
Liberty Valance makes his appearance late in the first act. It is hard to know what he hates more, reading, and the civilization that represents, or blacks, or blacks being taught to read. That Jim is black and has learned to read is a fatal combination. Foster has “caused trouble by teaching a colored man to read.” Paul Morris’s Valence is a slow-talking, deep-thinking, philosophical outlaw, deeply thoughtful and completely untroubled by his actions.
In his review, Roger Ebert analyzed the film as taking place “when the rule of force gave way to the rule of law, and when literacy began to gain a foothold.” He also wrote: “This is fascism against democracy.” Liberty Valance, dressed entirely in black, is entirely barbaric, bad, against society.
The fix is in for Jim, who is forced to play “Liars Dice” with Valance. Jim quietly, stoically, with integrity, plays the game, lying that there are five, six, seven, eight sixes rolled, hidden under their dice boxes. That’s it for Jim: slugged with a gun butt in the head by Valance’s henchman, and dragged out to be lynched.
This is playwright Compton creating transformational theatre, turning Dorothy Johnson’s 1950s tale of an 1890s western territory into a play for our age, a uniquely American 21st century tale. Liberty Valance is a terrorist, my seat mate said to me. He is– a home-grown, native, American-born terrorist. Jim, of course, couldn’t win, not at dice, not with words; his death, like his life, is set by white society.
So Jim, oddly, subtlety, provides the play’s through-line, his role a gift from the Englishman Compton, the play a mirror for us to peer into our souls now, our souls as they have always been.
The cast is impeccably dressed, and everyone looks their part, if a bit cliched, from the reporter (Nathan Tubbs, playing multiple roles) through the white hatted Marshal (Terry Gosdin as a subtlety sleazy coward) to his hulking assistant (Paul Kerford Wilson). Costume designer Beth Joos dressed everyone in brand-new duds, save Liberty Valance: his outfit, black from head to foot, is not only dusty, but has been slept in.
As in Cat Ballou, we have singing, talking cowboys in the background, coming in and out, narrating in Greek chorus fashion. A very nice touch, and well done by Ed Cohen on guitar and Jay Dallas Benson on mandolin. There is additional cowboy music as background sound (Ted Weil, sound designer).
This is a play to bring teens to, though there is one especially adult four letter word uttered. And, there are gunshots, as there must be, since guns are brandished from the first scene.
Tara Williams, as director, gets credit for the well-paced performances.
Playing February 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11 at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth Street, Newport, Kentucky 41071; Box Office: 513-479-6783. For more information, go to falcontheater.net.