REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is one of the all-time greatest westerns. So when I heard that a play version was making its American premiere at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, I got more than just a little excited. Envisioning the tensions seen on the screen in epic portrayals by Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin promised to be riveting theater. Unfortunately, the play version was taken not from the screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (it was unavailable) but an adaptation by British playwright Joshua Compton from Dorothy M. Johnson’s original short story, and although the Rubicon has created a fabulous setting featuring marvelous performances from all of the actors, and an atmospheric, on-stage musical tableau by Trevor Wheetman, the result is simply not as compelling as the movie.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is a lot to admire about the stage play. The characters are vividly drawn, the performances exceptional, and the brilliant look, thanks to set and lighting designer Thomas S. Giamario, is effectively evocative of the era, but if you grew up watching the movie, there are a lot of things about this play that just don’t sit right.
Part of the explanation for the underwhelming aspects of the play is that it is even more of a fable than the movie was. Its characters are portrayed as real people, but maybe a little bit too real. As real as they are, some just don’t behave like characters in westerns are supposed to behave, possibly due to the unfamiliarity of Compton with long-standing traditions in American westerns. (Compton wrote his version when he was in his mid-20s and is still only 28.) One can argue that the reason for this is that the play is not meant to be taken literally, but is instead an allegory for the changing of times in America, when the wild and wooly West gave way to a civilized society bent on educating its populace, enacting laws, and taking the power away from those who “took matters into their own hands” in those untamed times.
The story parallels that of the movie: in 1890, a young lawyer arrives in the one-horse town of Two Trees, borne on the back of cowboy Bert Barricune after being savagely beaten by local thug Liberty Valance. He is looked after by saloon owner Hallie Jackson but when he hears that Valance is seeking him out to finish the job, he tries to prepare himself for a final showdown.
All this is well and good, but the problems with the play are in the details. In the film, Ransom Stoddard the lawyer, played by James Stewart, is interested in educating the illiterate townsfolk and opens an ad hoc schoolhouse in the back of the town’s diner. In the play, the lawyer, who is called Ransome Foster, has only two students: Hallie and her African American helper, “Reverend” Jim (so named because his photographic memory enables him to commit to memory any Biblical passage he has heard in church). The role of Jim is beautifully played by Dorian Logan. It’s the inevitable educating of the populace, especially Jim, that incites Valance to come after Foster, who is threatening his criminal way of life. The difference here, however, is that while the film’s Valance, so memorably portrayed by Lee Marvin, was a one-dimensional ruthless monster, a sadistic killer with no redeeming qualities, in the play, Valance is a thoughtful and articulate businessman, easily the most literate of any of the characters, even moreso than the lawyer. He uses words like “trivialize” and “idyllic” and actually sits down and has a drink with his targets before dealing with them.
Valance’s civilized nature and preoccupation with progress threatening his enterprise as a cutthroat bully becomes clearer when you realize what he represents. His hatred of Jim and Foster is rational and businesslike. Where Lee Marvin’s Valance hisses “Either you get out of town, or tonight you be out on that street alone,” Compton’s Valance explains, “Laws, education, and e-quality are not good for my business.” But as Foster says, “Knowledge is power,” and his bringing education to the West is the metaphor that ultimately is Valance’s (and Barricune’s) undoing.
No vicious killer in a western behaves the way Compton’s Valance does. In addition to his flowery rhetoric, he drinks civilly out of shot glasses instead of the bottle (which would be more in character), plays an amiable dice game with Jim (while uttering racist epithets at him), and while chatting casually with Foster about how he is going to shoot him down in cold blood, actually places his gun on the table and walks around the room while he talks and talks and talks, leaving Foster free to take it away from him (inexplicably, he doesn’t). It’s a bizarre scene, probably the most civilized showdown in the history of westerns. Elegant bad guys like this are seen in James Bond or “Die Hard” films, not in the Old West. Director Jenny Sullivan has craggy actor Jeff Krober made up to look like a frightening killer – with his grizzled, unshaven countenance, eye patch, and hat, he resembles Rooster Cogburn in True Grit – but what he says and does are not conducive with what we expect from a western bad guy. We also never see Valance do any of his dirty deeds on stage, which gives us no real first-hand reason to hate him. The initial beating that he inflicts on Foster occurs before the action begins and the only other act of violence that happens does so off stage, perpetrated not by Valance, but by his two masked henchmen.
In the movie, the lawyer is revulsed by guns and refuses to obtain one, until he is forced to do so in self-defense. In the play, Foster, who is admirably played by Jacques Roy, is not only eager to don a gun, but struts around town wearing it, which taunts Valance into coming after him. There are other details in the play that are unrealistic. The Prairie Belle saloon, where all the action takes place, is strangely and sparsely unpopulated for such an establishment in a small western town. The characters who frequent it drink a lot, but nobody ever pays for their drinks. When Foster, desperate to acquire a gun, finally gets one, he still needs a gun belt, and the marshal’s deputy eagerly sells him his – what self-respecting lawman would do that? And because it is a stage play, there are no outdoor scenes, so Barricune teaching Foster how to shoot, the actual showdown, and even Barricune’s 1910 funeral, all take place in the saloon.
The town’s peace officer, Marshal Johnson, is played by Rubicon mainstay Joseph Fuqua, always a welcome presence and a chameleon of an actor who can convincingly play just about any part he desires. (The last time we saw him, he was an erudite Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.) The marshal hides behind his cowardice with a smoke screen of political red tape. He won’t prosecute Valance because there never seem to be witnesses around when he commits a crime. The film’s marshal is played by corpulent character actor Andy Devine, who is afraid of his own shadow and conveniently makes himself scarce whenever Valance is around, but the play’s marshal gives the best excuse for Compton’s adaptation to be seen as unreal, a representation of how the complex obfuscation of civilized law sometimes enables criminals to literally get away with murder. Marshal Johnson doesn’t care who shoots who in his town, so long as it’s a fair fight.
Gregory Harrison plays the John Wayne character, stolid cowboy Bert Barricune (the counterpart of the film’s Tom Doniphon). Like Doniphon, Barricune is in love with Hallie, but can never bring himself to say so. Unlike John Wayne’s characterization, Barricune shows weakness by talking about his unrequited affection for Hallie, which makes him somewhat less heroic. Despite this, Harrison gives a sensitive and well-rounded performance as Barricune, imbuing him with humanity and sacrifice that is only hinted at by John Wayne in the film (but, after all, that was John Freaking Wayne).
The excessive talkiness of the play actually works to its disadvantage and points out Compton’s unfamiliarity with conventions in American westerns. Although the play is captivating and the dialog beautifully written, the tension just isn’t there, because of all the chit-chat and telegraphing of intentions. Think about all the tense scenes you’ve seen in westerns: the silent showdown in the street and the unspoken threats that are communicated with looks, posture, or mannerisms. Compton never leaves room for tension to build because his characters are always yakking away, which ultimately makes the ultimate showdown between Foster and Valance anticlimactic. We want Foster to kill Valance not because he’s a soulless bad guy as much as we want him to just shut the hell up.
The only character who surpasses the film’s counterpart is that of Hallie Jackson, the saloon keeper. Unlike the elegant Vera Miles, who played Hallie in the movie, Sylvie Davidson is definitely a woman of the west: a tough-talking tomboy who is rough around the edges and can match Barricune drink for drink, just as a woman should after growing up in a man’s world. The dialog even informs us that Hallie only bathes on special occasions, or every couple of weeks, whichever comes first. Hallie cleans up well, however, and costume designer Alex Jaeger has come up with some beautiful, period-accurate dresses for Davidson to wear when Hallie finally decides to become more feminine. Davidson is totally believable in the role, talking coarsely in a dry-as-dust accent, being plain-spoken when she has to, but also capable of being a caring and vulnerable woman who sympathizes with Ransom’s dilemma.
Trevor Wheetman’s musical underscoring is an excellent accent to the play as it diverts attention from the moving around of furniture and props in between scenes. Although Wheetman (who in real life is Sylvie Davidson’s husband) composed most of the material (which he performs on stage on fiddle, guitar, and dobro from the wings), he does introduce one traditional song, “Wayfaring Stranger,” which is immediately linked to the lonesome, wandering cowboy character of Bert Barricune. It would have been even more effective had he used a convention used often in film – the concept of linking a sound or a melody with a specific character. (The menacing slide of the dobro would have been a great device to pair with the appearances of Valance.)
To sum up, the play version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a beautifully written, atmospherically staged presentation of a classic short story that deserves to be seen, however, to paraphrase the movie’s most famous line, which is stated by a reporter after hearing Ransom’s story about Liberty Valance: “when a legendary film becomes a play, see the legend.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays through March 20 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.