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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Theatre in the Round Players
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Dear Evan Hansen and How It's Gon' Be


Laura Hoover, Scott Pearson and Cast
Photo by Brian P. Joyce
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is best known for the 1962 movie directed by John Ford, king of the Hollywood western, starring John Wayne and James Stewart, and with a theme song that conjured up tumbleweeds and made it to the music charts, as sung by Gene Pitney. The film was based on a short story of the same name by Dorothy M. Johnson, published in 1953. Johnson lived most of her life in Montana and chronicled the old west in fiction and non-fiction. Two of her other stories, A Man Called Horse and The Hanging Tree, also received popular Hollywood treatments.

In 2014, British stage writer, director and producer Jethro Compton directed his own adaptation of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Park Theatre, a small but well-regarded London company. How this iconic story set in the mythic old west became Compton's first professionally produced work as a playwright is anybody's guess, but the Brit did a mighty fine job, bringing multiple conflicts to rip-roaring life. Theatre in the Round Players has lassoed this play for a few weeks, and given it a production that shoots from all barrels, directed with a master storyteller's touch by Brian P. Joyce.

Set in the fictitious town of Two Trees, in an unnamed western territory, the play opens in 1910 in a saloon that has been made into a funeral parlor to bid farewell to rancher Burt Barricune. U.S. Senator Ransome Foster arrives, having travelled all the way back from Washington D.C. for Burt's funeral. The senator explains who the deceased was to him, going back twenty years when, as a New York law student, he set out to wander the west with his satchel of law books, searching for something, though he knew not what. We see Burt find Ransome near death after being beaten on the open range, carrying him back to the saloon where the proprietor, Hallie Jackson, agrees—against her better judgement—to allow the stranger to stay until he recovers his health. She fears that the man who had Ransome beat up is likely to come back to finish the job. That man is the nefarious Liberty Valance, who keeps the entire populace of Two Trees quaking, and Hallie wants none of that kind of trouble.

Hallie is one of those strong-willed frontier gals from every western movie and TV show, who tends to run a saloon or some other business dealing with rough trade. Jim is an African American man who works for Hallie. Hallie's parents took him in as an orphan and he grew up like another brother to her, though their different skin tones mean they will always occupy different stations in life. Jim is called "Reverend" because of his amazing ability to remember the exact words of anything he hears. Ransome resolves that with such a gift, Jim must learn to read. Liberty Valance finds out that Ransome is teaching a black person to read, which adds to his determination to snuff out the unarmed New Yorker who thinks law can be dispensed from books.

Hallie and Ransome find themselves drawn to one another, much to the dismay of Burt, who has long harbored special feelings for Hallie. The romantic triangle, Liberty's demonic quest to mete out his own brand of justice through the barrel of a gun, and Ransome's determination to provide education to the eager students who join Jim at a makeshift school, combine to form a story that holds interest throughout, offering a few surprises along the way, and a conclusion that satisfies both emotionally and in bringing the narrative full circle to its starting point.

Compton took some of his plot points from the original story, some from the movie, and added a helping of his own, including a much more significant role for "Reverend" Jim. Both Thompson's story and Ford's film lay out their narrative in the context of the territory's upcoming vote on statehood, with Liberty Valance working against statehood, preferring the lawlessness of the territorial status. None of this is in Compton's play, though there is enough plot material to easily fill the two acts, without anything feeling like filler. (For fans of the movie, Compton reverts back to names Thompson used in her story, all of which were changed in the film with the obvious exception of Liberty Valance.)

Between scenes, a recorded narration (voice by director Joyce) sets the stage for the next scene with an old west twang that adds to the flavor of a tale told around a campfire of saloon gunfights between men who are 100% villainous and men who, though flawed, stand for virtue and decency. It also covers some of the lag time in changing settings on Theater in the Round's stage, done with lights dimmed.

The play has been very well cast. Scott Pearson is completely believable as naïve Ransome Foster, a city slicker way out of his element in sagebrush country who manages to make his mark. His blend of urban confidence and self-deprecation is completely charming. Laura Hoover is divine as the tough-as-nails Hallie Jackson, who calls the shots among the rough riders who frequent her saloon with acid-sharp wit, while harboring within a sense of a better life, both for her and for her life-long friend, Jim.

David Tufford is perfectly cast as Burt Barricune, a confident cowboy who knows his way around the range but completely flounders when trying to connect with the object of his affection. As the evil Liberty Valance, John Goodrich seeps sinister intentions with every line he speaks, in spite of his gentlemanly demeanor. The only question about his performance is whether his accent is intended to sound like a southern rascal—something like John Wilkes Booth in Assassins—rather than a bandit of the wild west. All other accents, with Foster Johns acting as dialog coach, are spot on.

Co-designers Latoya Dennis and Sadie Ward have done an excellent job of conjuring an old west saloon setting, especially given the limitations of the in-the-round staging, and Robert J. Smith, as prop designer, has come up with an amazing array of gizmos that add authenticity in terms of time and place. A. Emily Heaney's costume designs likewise work well to create a holistic sense of being transported to the 1890s American frontier, with notable attention to details, such as the dirt ground into Ransome's coat when he is carried in after being beaten and left for dead on the open range. Jeff Musch provides sounds that further add to the show's appeal, including the well-timed howl of an alley cat.

Having seen another play dealing with villainy in the old west just a few weeks ago, Nimbus Theatre's thoroughly enjoyable The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West, I wondered if The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would be, likewise, a send up of the genre. In a way, that seems easier to pull off than a straight-out, sincere western yarn, given the sense of irony and cynicism that is rife in our culture. It turns out that Jethro Compton's play keeps the saga on the level, drawing on sentimentality here and there, but maintaining a well-crafted storytelling thrust built around enduring themes of the nature of justice and the virtues of truth-telling. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance hits the bullseye in this first-rate production by Brian P. Joyce, his cast, and artistic team.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, through June 23, 2019, at Theatre in the Round Players, 245 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $22.00, Seniors (62+) - $18.00, Students with ID - $15.00. Discounts not valid on Saturdays. For tickets call 612-333-3010 or visit TheatreintheRound.org.

Playwright: Jethro Compton, based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson Director: Brian P. Joyce; Set Design: Latoya Dennis and Sadie Ward; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Lighting Design: Mark Kieffer; Props Design: Robert J. Smith; Sound Design: Jeff Musch; Assistant Director and Stage Manager: Scott Eric Gilbert; Assistant Stage Manager: Seth Tempas; Assistant Costume Designer: Mandi Johnson; Assistant Lighting Designer: Christopher Gehrke; Assistant Sound Designer: Matthew Vichlach; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns.

Cast: John Goodrich (Liberty Valance), Joseph Homrich (ensemble), Laura Hoover (Hallie Jackson), Samuel Joseph (Jim "Reverend" Mosten), Jacob Marcott (Jake Dowitt/ensemble), Shara Marquez (ensemble), Scott Pearson (Ransome Foster), Selma Petterson (ensemble), Timmy Rawerts (Marshall Johnson/ensemble), David Tufford (Bert Barricune), Celia Adeline Wendt (ensemble).


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