There once was a time when Western film ruled cinema. Week after week, a new tale of a white-hat-wearing sheriff driving the black-hat outlaw out of town were seen by thousands upon thousands. They were blockbusters of their time. Today’s over-saturated superhero-film market has a lot in common with the bygone era of the Western—and I don’t mean the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nature on which they are released nowadays. No, it’s the stripped-down, simple story of morality, expanded upon and retold so often, their focal points rise above normal status and become the stuff of legends.
Presented for first time ever on a North Carolina stage, Panache Theatrical Productions—spearheaded by Wilmington theatre staples Holli Saperstein and Anthony Lawson, and directed by Steve Vernon—brings the Wild West to the southeast coast, with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” by Jethro Compton. The production is being staged for a brief two-week run at the North Front Theatre.
The only real crime committed by Liberty Valance is it doesn’t run longer—because the show should be seen by as many as the theater can hold nightly. It’s a fantastic production and captures the essence of the films created by Sergio Leone or John Ford. The stage at the North Front Theatre is inarguably the best venue to have brought this play to life. Its aged appearance lends itself well to the show’s world—it vibes well as a much lived-in saloon. When paired with Lance Howell’s outstanding set design, the audience is transported to the town of Two Trees and the age of the gunslinger. Weathered planks of wood run up the set’s frame, all the way down to the traditional swinging bar doors Howell has crafted as an authentic Old West saloon. The set spans the full range of the stage and builds a world within Prairie Belle perfectly, as well as shapes the community outside of it just as evenly.
The set is matched by Beau Mumford’s simple, effective lighting. Hanging lamps burn from the walls to illuminate the stage. The audience is in for a visual treat upon stepping into the theater. The production value is high and attention to detail is top-notch.
Authenticity was the word buzzing around my head while watching the play and it would seem to be the same word flying around the head of its director, Steve Vernon. The set gives the actors the proper playground to run around in, but it is the onpoint costuming of Stephanie Aman which allows the production’s world of pretend to completely appear whole. From the worn-out wares of the cowboys to the prime and proper suits of the city folk, the costuming serves to inform the audience of status and how the characters see themselves. A prime example is in the style of spur worn by Valance (Robin Dale Robertson), which rings out through the theatre (even off stage) with every step the outlaw takes. It creates an ominous sense of a man whose reputation literally precedes him.
And then we have the peacemakers. The show’s armorer, Charley Coleman, has done a true justice to his title. Each character’s firearm matches, like the costuming of their individual personalities and styles of the period. It’s great work between two departments and comes off seamlessly.
The action of the play begins with a funeral service in the Prairie Belle saloon for a local “hero”; it is being attended by the new state’s Senator, Ransome Foster (Bradly Cox), a man who made a name for himself years ago in the town. Foster is interviewed by a reporter, Jake Dowitt (Atwood Boyd, who rocks a great stache and is the story’s narrator, which brings to mind the voice of History Channel documentaries). Dowitt is trying to find out the story behind the man who shot Liberty Valance. The event in Ransome’s life would forever define him.
Ransome Foster is the archetypal fish-out-of-water role—a man living in New York City, who wants to stake out a life of adventure in the untamed West. Cox comes off wooden at times, yet plays well into his overall outsider identity. As the play progresses, he believably shifts from Doc Hollywood to Doc Holliday in the climatic gun fight.
Foster’s first day of adventure does not go well, as he is jumped, robbed and beaten to an inch of his life by the Valance gang. He is saved by the noble cowboy, Bert Barricune (Woody Stefl), who rides along and brings him to the safe haven of Prairie Belle—owned and operated by hellcat Hallie Jackson (Jenn Ingulli) and her adopted brother, “The Reverend,” Jim (Juan Fernandez). It’s with the introduction of these town folks the show finds its own character, and where Ransome finds the courage to face this new uncivilized world.
Fernandez’s Reverend Jim is the welcoming smile and out-reached hand Ransome needs upon arrival. The Reverend shows, even in a world of dog-eat-dog, kindness can be found. Fernandez brings warmth to the role, so when misfortune befalls him, it shakes the story and audience to their core.
Ingulli is pure energy as Hallie Jackson, ping-ponging around her saloon and letting all know she is queen on high within its walls. While in Act 1, her performance can come off as one note—albeit a good note—in Act 2 she shines. One note becomes a wonderful overture and gives way to a gamut of emotion the character had kept bottled inside her.
Stefl’s Bert is a cowboy through and through—the best shot from Two Tree to Mexico, but only because he hasn’t been to Mexico. Stefl perfectly embodies Bert, and creates a heroic role that shows not all knights wear shining armor. They can be caked in dried mud, burnt red by the blazing sun, and understand that to win, sometimes, sadly, they have to lose. Stefl stands strong and brings to mind John Wayne. He is a perfect mirror and foil to Cox’s Foster.
The man of the hour, Liberty Valance, comes to life from Robin Dale Robertson, who takes the reins and rides the marvels of the title role brilliantly. He creates a vile, magnetic villain, who is terrifying and alluring. I’s impossible for the audience to tear their eyes away from him. His swagger allows everyone to forget the threat he actually holds over the characters. Though, as quick as a rattlesnake’s strike, Robertson reminds how, in his presence, they could be living their last moments. When he forces Jim into an unbeknownst game of life and death, I found myself on the edge of my seat—no hoping the tension would break. His iconic black hat often obscures his eyes to cast more darkness over those around him. It’s all unsettling; he could very well be soulless. The work Robertson has done in shaping Valance is a thing of wonder.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a first-rate night out to the theatre. It offers crackerjack timing and a bit of good luck to do what is most important in the field of art: entertain.