The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance started as a short story, written in 1953 by Dorothy M. Johnson. In 1962 John Ford directed the now classic film version which starred John Wayne, James Stewart and Vera Miles as the love triangle with Lee Marvin in the title role. The screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck took a lot of liberties with the plot and changed the names of virtually every character but Liberty himself. In 2014 Jethro Compton wrote a stage version that was produced in England. The Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura is currently presenting the American Premiere of the play.
I’m not sure if it’s because the playwright is British or that Westerns just aren’t a natural fit to the stage, but this latest Liberty just doesn’t resonate. It is way too talky; running over 2 1/2 hours it desperately needs trimming. If real cowboys, outlaws and saloon customers talked this much, the West never would have been won. Most of us would still be living east of the Mississippi while nothing but talk was done out west. The action of the play is all set in the interior of a saloon which makes target practice and the climatic gunfight difficult to stage believably. Another problem with the script is the nine person cast which makes for the least populated town on the prairie and the least frequented saloon in the history of the Old West. There is also the frequent use of narration (the dulcet, stentorian tones of George Ball not withstanding) that just doesn’t work in the theatre unless it is Tom in The Glass Menagerie and that is more remembrance than narration. But most problematic of all is the climatic showdown between the tenderfoot scholar and the nefarious gun-slinging outlaw that becomes more a battle of words and ideas than fists or bullets. You can’t help but think they are going to talk themselves into the grave.
Given all those script problems, director Jenny Sullivan and the Rubicon have mounted a solid if too lengthy and leisurely a production. Jacques Roy as Ransome, an Easterner looking for life’s meaning by heading west, provides a solid center for the show. His joy of speaking is infectious at times and his love of passing on that joy by teaching the illiterate townfolk to read is clearly shown. His slowly building flirtatious courting of the tomboyish saloon keeper Hallie is nicely played. As Hallie, Sylvie Davidson slowly blooms like the prickly pear blossoms she is so fond of. As she learns to read and is courted by Ransome, she slowly transforms like Eliza Doolittle, from foul-mouthed hellion to a dainty but sturdy young lady. Gregory Harrison embodies true grit as the older Bert, a cowboy and former gunslinger who has a crush on Hallie but not the ability to communicate it to her properly. Bert is a realist and avoids trouble if he can and cautions others to do the same, but when a hero is needed, he’s quick on the draw. Jeff Kober as Liberty makes an appropriately menacing villain . Joseph Fuqua as the smarmy Marshall and Dorian Logan as Jim give strong support. The show’s best asset is Music Director/Composer/on stage Musician Trevor Wheetman. His playing of the violin and acoustic guitar underscores much of the talk and gives the show a true Western flavor.
Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St. in Ventura. Ends March 26. 805-667-2900.