“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which opened last weekend at the Camelot Theatre, is an old-fashioned Western morality play with consummate good, supreme evil and lots of ambiguity in between.
The story is best known from the 1962 film starring John Wayne and James Stewart, Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance and Vera Miles as Hallie Jackson. The play, adapted by Jethro Compton and first performed in London in 2014, had some significant differences that elevated it from a simple Western drama to a contemporary production about equity, truthfulness and racial equality. These are the notions that director Olivia Harrison explores with compassion and clarity in the Camelot production.
A young scholar makes his way West in the late 19th century and lands in the Prairie Belle, a saloon in the town of Twotrees. He stays his journey for love of a young woman and the opportunity to make a difference in a small town. Liberty Valance is the territorial terror who is the law in those parts, and will have no one standing for government, education or equity. The opposing perspectives of order and anarchy set the scene for a test of nerves, will and iron.
Courtney Crawford is ardent and pure in her role as Hallie Jackson, an orphaned girl and Prairie Belle saloon keeper. We’ve come to appreciate Crawford’s forthright and passionate performances in strong female roles here in the Rogue Valley.
Hallie’s spiritual brother is Jim Mosten, The Reverend, played by a new talent on the Southern Oregon stage, Miykael Moore. Moore seems absolutely comfortable in his body and expression, whether still or on the move, and his grace on stage is something beautiful to see. The character of The Reverend is new in the stage production and serves to bring the drama forward and reinforce the need for social change. As The Reverend, Moore’s defiance in the face of ultimate injustice is stunning and terrible.
There are three alpha-male characters in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Bert Barricune, Ransome Foster and Valance, respectively played by Elliot Anderson, Alex Boyles and Bruno Marcotulli. Each performer rises to authority in distinctly different situations and under different conditions. These alpha males are all physically suited to their roles, and use words differently to reinforce and extend their characters.
Anderson as Barricune has the rolling step and strong heel of a cowboy and the “aw, shucks” of John Wayne. Like the characters that John Wayne played, Bert has the true heart of a cowboy and the fine eye of a superior gunman; he administers Western justice as needed, to protect and punish, to keep the peace. Anderson’s best moments are when he swallows his words and guards his actions to serve Hallie’s interests, the woman he loves with all his heart. Anderson has mastered the moments of physical control and affect that this cowboy’s life and the role demands — Bert’s heart breaking even as he obliges his love.
Boyles is Foster, the highly literate and extremely verbal Easterner, a soft and timorous man who is easily frightened. Ransome is an outsider as are Hallie and The Reverend, and words join them together and offer the possibility of another life, somewhere other than Twotrees.
Foster uses poetry to enchant Hallie and parries the threat of violence with considered logic, words that stay the violence and likely save his life. Boyles plays the arc of his character well, moving from fear to determined courage even in the face of death. His decision to stay silent serves the larger good of social justice.
Perhaps the most chilling scenes are those where Marcotulli is center stage as Liberty Valance. Marcotulli’s slow, deliberate language is spare and malevolent, his eyes cold and reptilian. At times, his voice rises in mirth and incandescent evil. The showdown between Foster and Valence is a verbal duel of towering existential proportions and begs the question whether the play is really just an exercise in determinism. Shots ring out and the stage goes dark.
I really didn’t believe that I was in 1890s Twotrees — that Western drawl is damn hard to get right. I was, though, immersed in the story of a good old-fashioned shootout, the lives of two very different men who loved the same woman, and Liberty Valance, evil incarnate.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” is an iconic drama of how lawlessness and civil order played out in the American West. Boo and hiss at Marcotulli’s performance as Liberty Valance and cheer out loud when honor, justice and the larger good triumph through Anderson's and Boyles' craft. Weep when you think of Miykael Moore, The Reverend.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” runs about two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Strong language and racial expressions consistent with an older era may offend. The show plays through Feb. 25. For more information, visit cametlottheatre.org.
— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland, Oregon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.