Dark Horse Opera
by Michael Dresdner
|L to R: Bert (Chris James), Ransome (Jacob Tice), Hallie (Jill Heinecke) All photos by Dennis K Photography|
A classic western called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, but this play is far more complex and nuanced than the famous movie version of the tale.
Directed most adroitly by David Domkoski, this is a play that goes well beyond both the scope and quality of the thin plots and stereotypical characters in many horse operas. What really made it exceptional was the outstanding ensemble cast.
Scene one opens with Senator Ransome Foster (Jacob Tice) returning to the small western town of Twotrees for the funeral of a man he obviously admires, but hadn’t spoken to in 20 years. It then goes quickly to flashback for the bulk of the play, triggered by the questions of a reporter (Margret Parobek in a sadly small role.)
|Burt Barricune (Chris James)|
Decades ago, Foster, an educated east coast greenhorn, arrived in the town after being beaten and left for dead on the road by Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn) and his gang. He’s hauled unconscious into the saloon by a tall, strong, capable cowboy and crack shot named Bert Barricune (Chris James) who plops him on the bar. There he’s revived and tended to by saloon owner Hallie Jackson (Jill Nicole Heinecke), aided by her longtime close friend and employee Jim Mosten (Nick Butler), a black man (yes, that’s key to the plot) who everyone calls The Reverend.
|L to R: Sheriff (Ben Stahl), Hallie Jackson (Jill Heinecke)|
The lackadaisical, play-it-safe sheriff, Marshal Johnson (Ben Stahl), arrives with his scruffy, taciturn deputy (Curtis Beech) and quickly decides to do nothing about the situation. After discovering Ransome’s satchel full of books and hearing some lines of Shakespeare, Hallie decides to let him stay at the saloon, but only after he offers to teach The Reverend, a savant with perfect recall, how to read.
|L to R: Ransome (Jacob Tice) , Bert (Chris James)|
Soon more of the town, including Hallie, are learning to read, something that does not sit well with quintessential bully, murderer, and classic bad guy Liberty Valance. He shows up with his sidekicks and kills a beloved character to get the town’s attention. When Foster straps on a gun bent on revenge, then asks Barricune to teach him to shoot, Valance returns to town for a shootout. Though it sounds thoroughly formulaic, don’t be fooled; there’s a turn of events you don’t expect, and a love story (or two) that you do.
|L to R: The Reverend (Nick Butler), Ransome (Jacob Tice), Bert (Chris James)|
I really can’t say enough good things about this cast – all of them – for creating real, convincing, three-dimensional characters, something you don’t always find in a western. Tice plays Foster with just the right range of fear, bravado, and doubt; a complex man in a trying situation. Heinecke’s Jackson ranges from almost unapproachable tough gal to a woman with real love and feelings to offer, changing both accent and mannerismns to reflect the civilizing changes of two decades back east.
Chris James as Barricune is the classic adept cowboy with few words, but more than the expected dose of honor, who hides a soft heart behind a brawny exterior. Stahl’s sheriff is annoyingly uninvolved, exactly who the character is supposed to be.
|L to R: The Reverend (Nick Butler), Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn)|
There’s a scene in act one where Liberty Valance corners and intensely bullies The Reverend, and Quinn and Butler play it so well you can feel the tension and discomfort in your gut. In act two, a confrontation between Ransome and Liberty becomes a captivating exchange when both men outline and defend their life philosophy. Along with adding dimension and nuance to Valance’s character, it also reveals his disarmingly logical outlook and justification for who he is and what he does. That turns the lead up to the big showdown scene into a much more layered, and more interesting, encounter.
|L to R: Ransome (Jacob Tice), Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn)|
As I find myself saying again and again during reviews, the set by Blake York, dressed by Jeffery Weaver and painted by Ana Bury, was absolutely perfect – exactly what we would envision for Twotrees’ saloon. Costume designer Michele Graves did a bang up job, obligingly putting the good guy in a white hat, the bad guy all in black, and making the tough saloon keeper look as masculine and dowdy as her character, no mean feat when you begin with Jill Heinecke.
|L to R: Hallie (Jill Heinecke), Ransome (Jacob Tice)|
Lighting, by Niclas Olson, was excellent, meaning too natural to notice. Similarly, gentle cowboy guitar music held sway both in the background beforehand and during scene changes. If you have your heart set on hearing the iconic movie theme song, you’ll have to wait until after final curtain.
To sum it all up, this play is good enough to captivate even those who don’t like westerns, and is an above and beyond treat for those who do.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
June 2 to June 18, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre