“Liberty Valance” Director Jenny Sullivan Talks About Rubicon’s New Production

BY CARY GINELL

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was originally a short story penned in 1953 by Dorothy M. Johnson (1905 – 1984), who wrote numerous articles and stories with Western themes. In 1962, Valance was adapted for motion pictures in a blockbuster film directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, James Stewart, and Lee Marvin, in the title role of the sadistic gunslinger who is taken on by Stewart, who portrayed a tenderfoot attorney new to the dusty town of Shinbone. Jethro Compton’s new stage play is based on the short story instead of the movie, getting its start in England in 2014. The Rubicon Theatre Company’s new production marks the play’s American debut, starring Gregory Harrison in the role of Bert Barricune, the equivalent of John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon in the film. Reviews of the play have called it “gripping drama” and “consistently absorbing.” We spoke with Jenny Sullivan, who is directing Rubicon’s production and she talked about the process of presenting a subject that has become much more famous through the film adaptation than for the original story.

VCOS: Were you a big fan of the movie like I was?

JENNY: I was, but it seems that everybody has watched it again except me. I just remember loving it when I saw it originally. It’s just a great movie. But I haven’t seen it in many, many years. I was, and still am a huge fan of westerns, so that’s one of the main attractions for me is just getting to direct a western. 

VCOS: Many people would be surprised to discover that the original short story was written by a woman. Is there a female sensibility that distinguishes this from other western stories?

JENNY: I would say yes, because, Hallie, the woman in the story, is really the linchpin. Everything revolves around how much she means to all the different characters in the story, except for Liberty Valance, of course. So I think it’s very much a woman’s story. That’s what’s so interesting about it, to me. There’s such a simplicity of heart in it. And everything that happens in the story happens because of her. Maybe Dorothy Johnson was writing it with Hallie as herself. So it’s a woman’s story even though it’s a male-driven play. 

VCOS: I studied this film in college and have enjoyed revisiting it ever since. John Ford’s vision of the story was that it was a lot larger in scope than just about the interpersonal relationships between the major characters. What it represented was the last cries of the wild and woolly frontier, as lawlessness gave way to civility, and the John Wayne character, who used his gun to settle his affairs, became an anachronism in a new, more civilized society. Is this evident in the play as well?

JENNY: Yes. Absolutely, because we are clearly on the verge of life changing and never being in that way again. In the play, the thing that’s interesting is that it’s a very compact piece. You don’t see the rest of the world; it all takes place in this saloon, and in the play version, it heightens the turn of events because you really only get to experience them through the eyes and emotions of the characters who are in this saloon. But it is very much the same story in that life is changing and society is radically different from the beginning of the play to the end of the play. It’s pretty fascinating, considering that we’re going through an election ourselves and how much of it rides on somebody who ends up running for office and achieving more power. There are a lot of references to the political structure as a powerful point in the changes in society.

VCOS: Can you address the topic of politics in the play and how this might reflect upon the current presidential campaign, especially with regard to celebrity?

JENNY: It is totally about someone who has made a great name for himself and is a smart man, a learned man, and has survived a tough situation that he got himself into. But his celebrity is what got him elected, not necessarily what he was smart about. He gained notoriety and it totally impacts the rest of his life, and he has to live with that one way or the other. 

VCOS: In the movie, Jimmy Stewart’s character seems to have a sense of melancholy about him relating to how he got elected senator, not because of his abilities as a politician, but because of the circumstances of his fight with Liberty Valance. Tell me how you can compare Ransom Stoddard, which was Stewart’s character in the movie, with Ransome Foster in the play?

JENNY: You only get a sense about Ransome becoming a powerful person at the end of the play, when he comes to the funeral of Bert. It’s more ambiguous in the play what he is coping with emotionally in terms of what got him there. And it really isn’t dealt with until the very end. So it’s for us to make our own judgments about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. 

VCOS: What, in your opinion, was Dorothy Johnson’s view of the American West? 

JENNY: From what I have experienced, there’s the lawlessness, but also there’s the ability to survive a life that’s not simple and easy and mapped out for you. It’s about strength of character. I really think it’s a look at the West and how it’s growing up and what these people have done to be able to live in the West. This town doesn’t even have a school until someone shows up from the East to start one. 

VCOS: This is a quintessentially American story, but is it surprising to you that the play got its start in England and hasn’t even gotten to America until now?

JENNY: Yes, I am, but I’m even more surprised because we’ve been communicating with Jethro Compton, the playwright, is English and he is only 28 years old. That really knocked my socks off. We were in rehearsal when we heard that the other day. He said something to Karyl Lynn Burns, our artistic director, about “I was much younger when I wrote this,” so she said, “Well, when did you write it?” I mean he’s 28 NOW! The fact that he took this on is fascinating to me. Everybody is always complaining about how the Brits are taking all the jobs and they do all these great accents, but it’s amazing that it took a production like this to start out in London and was so successful that it finally got our attention out here. I’m thrilled that we get to take the first crack at it here in the U.S. because it IS, as you say, the quintessential American story. 

VCOS: The role of the journalist in the film was played by Edmond O’Brien. His character was kind of the conscience of the town. What is his character like in the story?

JENNY: In the play, he’s a young reporter who asks the initial questions and his name is referred to later on, but that’s not a character that takes you through the storytelling. There is a narrator who I feel is more like Ransome looking back and telling the story, although it’s not specifically him. It feels like his voice, older, toward the latter part of his life.

VCOS: I read where Robert Vaughn was used for the voice of the narrator in the original London production.

JENNY: Well, that’s why I’m out here in Ojai right now because we are recording George Ball, who worked a lot at the Rubicon and he’s got this wonderfully resonant voice that I really like and it works really well with the guy who is playing Ransome, who also has a resonant voice. George has a recording studio here in Ojai so that’s what I’ve been doing, recording this narration, which takes the audience through the story. Here’s the thing. We’ve been treating this as an American fable. As we were tracking facts from the story, like the name of the town or the prickly pear blossom, we kept looking these up, trying to pigeonhole where this is all taking place, but there was always some fact that would contradict it, so we kept coming back to the idea that this is the idea of the West as opposed to being in Arizona or Nevada or someplace. 

VCOS: I think in the movie it was supposed to be Oklahoma Territory although they never stated anything other than that it was an unnamed place that was going to become a state. 

JENNY: Yeah. That comes up also. But there are always facts that come up that don’t jive. So we’ve been embracing the idea that this is a fable. 

VCOS: Let’s talk a little about the casting. There are going to be inevitable comparisons with the actors who were in the film. 

JENNY: Since I haven’t seen the movie in many years, I can’t speak to that casting, but as I remember it, that was really solid Hollywood casting for a film, but that’s not what we’re doing. My Ransome is Jacques Roy who is from New York. As we put our casting notices out, he submitted several video auditions to us and we kept coming back to him because he was so uniquely different from everybody else in the cast and had a certain command of language and his physicality, which was different from our Western characters. He is the fish out of water. Jacques is classically trained and could be a teacher. He’s been a go-to to help with some of the stuff that Ransome teaches. Our Bert Barricune is Gregory Harrison, who is just an utter delight to work with. He gets the milieu of the West. He just understands living in nature because he does. He’s a water guy, but he gets what it takes to be a cowboy and how to bring in the idea of the films of the West. That’s the other level of this. There’s the real West and there’s the pretend West of Hollywood. So Greg brings that great simplicity of the Hollywood West. He really knows how to capture that. 

VCOS: Are there any unique staging issues that you had to deal with?

JENNY: Well! We’ve got guns! And we’re in a small theater. So there’s so much that we have to take care of just in having weapons on site. Now, there’s no ammunition anywhere in the theater (laughs) but they have to look good, they have to look dangerous, they have to look like these guys have been wearing them their whole lives and know how to handle them. There’s one scene where Bert is teaching Ransome how to shoot so the staging of that is tricky because the audience is RIGHT THERE. I’ll know after Sunday if we’ve solved the problem. But you don’t have this much weaponry on stage that often unless you’ve got swords and are doing Shakespeare.

VCOS: And no horses!

JENNY: And no horses. But I’ll tell you, it’s quite funny because of the machismo in doing this. You put boots and cowboy hats on a bunch of guys and (laughs), they’re all actors, of course, but they just seem to get a little tougher! I just think it’s inherent and it’s an amazing and wonderful thing to see. Now, our Hallie is this tiny thing who looks like she was born in the wrong era. She has this beautiful, wide open face and she has to put up with all these guys. So it’s pretty funny, actually. I’m enjoying watching the dynamic in the rehearsal hall. We’ve also added an element of live music.

VCOS: Great! Tell me about that.

JENNY: A guy named Trevor Wheetman is writing original music and then playing it on stage. He plays guitar and fiddle and steel guitar. We still have to work on it because it’s underscoring like it does in film, and it’s kind of thrilling because it’s another part of the idea evoking the Hollywood Western. The score of a Western is very iconic, so we’re scoring it. Right now, we might have to trim some of it back, but there’s a fair amount of it and it’s pretty exciting to have original music. There are a couple of hymns that are sung, and in one, Trevor took a sonnet that is in the play and wrote a song that is based on the sonnet. That replaces one of the hymns. When you read the text of the play, there’s something about an orchestra. I don’t know what they did in London and I don’t want to know because I don’t want it to influence me, but they obviously used music in some way. But this is our own take on how music is important. Normally I would just find some pre-recorded music and use it for the scene changes to show passage of time, but actually having a musician on stage, dressed in the era, is exciting. I love it.

VCOS: Well, westerns have always been tied to music, whether it was the singing cowboys of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers or the scores by people like Dimitri Tiomkin in High Noon or Ennio Morricone in the spaghetti westerns. 

JENNY: It just felt right to us. It’s not an enormous theater, so it’s not big scoring, but the one thing that we’re playing with the scoring is that as it gets toward the end of the play, there is some electronic music, which symbolizes the encroaching future. 

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens March 5 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates and show times, consult the VC On Stage Calendar. 

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