Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Virginian–A Horseman of the Plains
City Lit Theater Company
Review by Ruth Smerling

Also see John's review of Oklahoma!

Robert Hunter Bry
Photo by Steve Graue
I know I'm going to get a lot of flak for this, but I believe, with all my heart, Chicago theatergoers are the heartiest and most loyal in the world. I know that I speak for all of us when I say how grateful we are that nothing has stopped our theaters from opening and delivering night after night of much needed entertainment. And hooray for City Lit Theater Company–their new and much anticipated season opens with the western of all westerns, The Virginian–A Horseman of the Plains.

Adapted by L. C. Bernadine and Spencer Huffman from Owen Lister's sweeping novel, The Virginian is the blueprint for the entire genre we call "The Western." With a superb cast, under the direction of Artistic Director Terry McCabe, The Virginian–A Horseman of the Plains is an emotionally charged and exciting story, and a brilliant artistic telling of the difficulties early settlers had to hurdle to help make our America what it is today.

Robert Hunter Bry stars as the Virginian. Bry leaves no doubt that the Virginian is a man of great courage and fortitude, as well as a man of the highest moral standards. His impeccable character makes him a natural leader to the rest of the cowboys. He has garnered the fealty of Steve (Aaron Sarka), Shorty (David Fink), and Nebrasky (Tony DiPisa). They want a town that is educated and modern and have enlisted a school marm, Molly Wood superbly played by Liz Falstreau, who shimmers as the epitome of virtue, good manners, and great knowledge. She even catches the eye of the Virginian, who in her presence is somewhere between mush and a strong desire to court her.

It seems as though these fine folks have made their town idyllic. Well, not quite. There are a few obstacles, like Hugh Balaam (Tom Lally), a wealthy rancher who has a reputation for being cruel not only to his many wives but to the people he does business with. He is even linked to cattle rustlers, one in particular named Trampas (Ben Auxier), a loud mouth drunk who will do anything for a fast buck, even if it means drawing a gun and killing a man he once was friends with. Plus, even among the loyalist of friends in the town, there are traitors and schemers who will work to undo all the good work being done.

For every bad person who haunts saloons and draws guns, there is a good person who has to fight for their own survival. The Virginian stands up to rustlers, but Molly fights the Virginian's need to answer violence with violence. There is a constant tug of war against good and evil until one spills so far over onto the other, the dividing lines become a total blur and new rules take over, be they legal or not. Well, after all, this is the wild, wild west.

A lot of work went into the casting and technical design of this production. The entire performance is accompanied and enhanced by cellist Kelsee Vandervall, who plays throughout the performance. Scenery by Ray Toler is a simple set that that depicts the beginnings of a new life in rustic residences. Harsh conditions that always loom are shown on graphic curtains designed by Lisa Maraldi and invoke the vast loneliness of the new world and undivided spaces these determined people work tirelessly to cultivate and protect. Costume designer La Visa Angela Williams has fashioned some unforgettable outfits. The women's costumes must be really fun to wear, except for the possible corset. These ladies are lacy and frilly, ultra feminine, with so many buttons. Of course, the cowboys are always smudged and wearing bandannas, looking like they've been riding the range. And they look like they are actually riding horses on stage–puppeteers Linsey Falls, Sara Franzel, Adèle Watel, and David Wiesenhahn choreograph spirited horses along the stage at a steady pace.

The Virginian–A Horseman of the Plains is an imaginative wild ride, a great tribute to the early settlers, and a magnificent artistic endeavor.

Note: COVID-19 restrictions are strictly adhered to. Everyone at City Lit–casts, crews, and office staff–is fully vaccinated. City Lit follows CDC ventilation guidelines on a daily basis to ensure a complete exchange of air in the theater between performances. Masks must be worn at all times in the theater. Please bring proof of vaccination and a photo I.D.

The Virginian–A Horseman of the Plains runs through February 20, 2022, at City Lit Theater Company, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Second Floor of the Edgewater Presbyterian Church at Sheridan and Bryn Mawr, Chicago IL. Tickets are $34 for regular performances. Senior prices are $29 and students and military tickets are $12 for all performances. Season subscriptions are available for $90 or $68 for previews. For tickets and information, please call 773-293-3682 or visit