Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
After a stunning antique map of the Wyoming Territory that serves as the show curtain rises up, the play begins with Bob Starrett, a grown man, entering the stage, to tell us a story about a year in his childhood, 1889 in a remote corner of that territory. Bob is dusty from the packed earth below his feet, and he brushes the dust off his coat, slapping his knees and stomping his feet in the process. This kind of percussive sequence is repeated at other points in the play, and in the movement of furnishings and props between scenes, calling up the percussive sound of horse hooves, and the stark nature of life in this bleak, distant time and place.
Moving back in time to his childhood, he is Bobby, an eleven-year-old growing up on a homesteaders farm. Shane–we never learn if that is his first or his last name, for he introduces himself simply as Shane and will offer no more–passes by the farm of homesteaders Joe and Marian Starrett. Shane is tall and dark–dressed completely in black–and reveals precious little about himself. He is bent on just traveling through, but Joe offers overnight hospitality and a home-cooked meal, an offer the road-weary Shane has a hard time refusing. Bobby is agog at the sight of Shane. Few strangers pass that way at all, and none that project Shane's brew of dignity and danger.
Joe, Marian, and the other homesteaders in their corner of Wyoming are fighting off the ambitions of Luke Fletcher, an avaricious rancher bent on booting the homesteaders off their hardscrabble farms to expand his cattle empire. When Shane realizes the danger Fletcher presents to the Starrett family, who have been so kind to him, he changes his mind about traveling on, offering to stay and work on the farm. Unspoken, but patently clear, his real reason for staying is to protect his hosts from the violence Fletcher threatens against any who won't give up the farms that represent all they have in the world. Bobby idolizes Shane, seeing him as an invincible hero, though Shane tries to disabuse the boy of those ideas. Indeed, Shane strives to become a more peaceable man, like Joe Starrett, in spite of the hovering menace of Fletcher and his hired thugs.
The play is cited as an adaptation of the same-titled novel by Jack Schafer, published in 1949, but the novel was never a best seller, and most people are familiar with Shane through its 1953 film adaptation, directed by George Stevens. Its final scene, with young Bobby calling after Shane not to leave, is an iconic image, known even by many who have never seen the film. It underscores the fact that Shane, while a western in time and place, is a rich human drama, dealing with issues of acceptance, belonging, family and devotion. It addresses the capacity of a person to change their nature, in conflict with a society that insists on pushing them back into old patterns.
Zacarías tells the story in a crisp ninety minutes, never feeling rushed, but spare and muscular like the western landscape–beautifully depicted in Lex Liang settings using weathered wood beams in a series of rises that slope first one way, then another, suggesting the foothills couched beneath the mountains. The playwright made some significant changes in her telling of the tale by having Shane be a Black man and the Starretts be Mexican. Historically, both notions are completely plausible. Many freed slaves, some of whom fought in the Civil War, headed west to seek opportunities away from the fallen plantations. Though rarely seen in westerns, about a quarter of all cowboys back in those days were Black, and another quarter were Hispanic. As Marian relates, she grew up in Mexico with her family. They never moved, but when the land on which they lived was gobbled up by the United States after the Mexican War, they were suddenly on American soil–soil which the conquering Americans soon pushed them off of, leaving them, like the freed slaves, in need of ways to plant new lives.
These changes work extremely well, adding a dimension of historic depth and contemporary relevance to Shane. What works less well is the addition of a character named Winona, a woman of Native American lineage. She accompanies Fletcher acting as a translator between the white man and native people. In return, Fletcher has promised to deliver cattle to her people who are starving after a bad harvest and the fact that almost all the buffalo have been hunted down. This might have been another strong way to elaborate on the story, bringing an important perspective to bear. Winona does voice that perspective, but what falls short is her pedantic manner, which comes across more like a professor of Native American studies at Midwestern university brought in to do diversity training than as a Native woman in 1889. Also, her relationship with Fletcher does not ring true. It seems very unlikely that a man in his day and of his venality would allow her as much leeway as she is given. This is a thorn in what is otherwise an insightful and judicious approach to making a vibrant contemporary stage adaptation of a seventy-four-year-old book.
Blake Robison, the producing artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, directs this production. He deftly unspools the narrative as a continuous, uninterrupted story, allowing the strong emotions felt by Joe, Marian, Bobby and Shane to be fully revealed, while maintaining a rising line of tension through to the last scene. Fight scenes–both fisticuffs and gunfights–are inventively, cinematically staged to deliver a full sense of their violence without ever graphically depicting blood or carnage–amazing work by father-and-son fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet .
The cast, all of whom played their roles in the Cincinnati production, are an outstanding ensemble. William DeMeritt makes a compelling impression as Shane, projecting the requisite sense of foreboding and mystery while persuasively showing his growth, his tender core, and his yearning to be a different kind of man. As Joe Starrett, Ricardo Chavira offers an authentic depiction of a proud man, loving husband, and father, who will not back down from any threat to his family. Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, as Marian, gives a pulsating performance of a woman who embraces life, dearly loves her family, is at one with her Mexican heritage, and speaks truth at all times. Juan Arturo gives an astonishing performance as Bob, a grown man touched by mature recognition of the significance of the events of his childhood, and switching like magic to Bobby, exuding the high-voltage energy of a young boy in thrall of a great enigma that has entered his life in the form of Shane.
Bill McCallum plays the villain, Luke Fletcher, projecting a smug arrogance and complete lack of morals that cause the audience to truly hate him. Shayna Jackson gives a sharp-edged, forceful performance as Winona, despite the issues raised above about her character. Mikell Sapp gives a dynamic performance as Chris, oozing contempt as one of Fletcher's henchmen who is the first to provoke Shane. Grant Goodman is impressive in two roles, as a drink-addled but ardent homesteader stirring his peers up to resist Fletcher and as a malevolent gunfighter hired by Fletcher. Terry Hempleman does strong work as two different types of frontier businessmen, an implement dealer taking advantage of the farmers, and bartender-postmaster-shopkeeper Sam Grafton, who tries to maintain a neutral space amid the towns warring parties.
Liang's exquisite scenic design is greatly abetted by Pablo Santiago's evocative lighting. Matthew M. Nielson designed the sound and composed music that adds much to the overall atmosphere–especially some pedal-steel guitar, with its mournful tonality–without ever being intrusive. Trevor Bowen's costumes are outstanding, adding to our sense of time and place, and our knowledge of each character and, I am fairly sure, providing more high plains dusters than I have ever seen on one stage.
About a year ago, it was announced that another classic western movie, High Noon, is being turned into a Broadway-bound stage play by Eric Roth (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Forest Gump) to be directed by Michael Arden (Best Director of a Musical Tony Awards for Parade). If it reaches fruition, it would be the first Western play to premiere on Broadway in over 85 years. While not a Broadway opening, Karen Zacarías, Blake Robinson, and this company's achievement in launching this soaring adaptation of Shane at two highly regarded, Tony Award winning regional theaters is no less impressive–and who knows, it may find its way to the Great White Way before High Noon. But it is here at the Guthrie right now, and is a definite must-see.
Shane runs through August 27, 2023, at the Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $31 to $79. Seniors (65+), College Students (with ID) $3 - $6 off per ticket. Public Rush line for unsold seats 15 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets: $20 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday evenings; $25 on weekend matinees, Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Karen Zacarías, adapted from the novel by Jack Schafer; Director: Blake Robinson; Scenic Design: Lex Liang; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Pablo Santiago; Sound Design/Composer: Matthew M. Nielson; Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clark; Movement Director: Vanessa Severo; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet; Lakota Language and Cultural Consultant: Tipiwizin Tolman; Resident Casting Director: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Jason Klusman; Assistant Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter.
Cast: Juan Arturo (Older Bobby/Bobby Starrett), Ricardo Chavira (Joe Starrett), William DeMeritt (Shane), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Marian Starrett), Grant Goodman (Ernie Wright/Stark Wilson), Terry Hempleman (Jake Ledyard/Sam Grafton), Shayna Jackson (Winona Stephens), Bill McCallum (Luke Fletcher), Mikell Sapp (Chris Johnson).