The Wild West represents defining moments of American history. Freedom was rugged, since very little government dictated the safety of citizens or ownership of land. Territories and states were challenged at every turn, as practically anyone could regulate who colonized towns and ran general stores, saloons, brothels, and other businesses. And if someone else came along with better ideas for it all, well, it was up for the taking with a quick draw of a pistol.
Often reported on in newspapers with sensationalized romance and folklore, the American frontier has managed to continually fascinate U.S. citizens with “ride or die” legends, showcasing good versus evil and the responsibility that comes with free will. Government hadn’t set up parameters of social order then, so one’s internal moral compass did—which didn’t always end well for the greater good.
“Still, Western characters seem to have a code they follow,” reminds Steve Vernon, artistic director of Big Dawg Productions. “They are like our versions of stories about knights. . . . We are still a young country, without thousands of years of stories to look back on. Westerns show us an idealized version of ourselves—and our past.”
Vernon has been a longtime fan of Western films, especially John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which starred James Stewart and John Wayne (and was based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson). The 1962 Western saw the frontier’s wily days darkened when industrialization and modernization lit the way for progress. The story follows the arrival of big-city lawyer Ransom Stoddard, who comes back to his hometown of Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon. Told in flashbacks, Stoddard, now a senator, tells a newspaper editor about his first return home on a robbed stagecoach, taken down by the terror of Liberty Valance. It left Stoddard working in a local kitchen, where he met the love of his life, Hallie, and eventually became a representative for his town which was facing statehood.
“I remember being a bit confused while watching it [on TV as a kid,]” Vernon says. “It wasn’t clear who the ‘white hats’ and ‘black hats’ were until the end. I wasn’t used to that, as it seemed like, in most films of the genre, it was clear cut as to who were the good guys and bad guys.”
Two years ago, Vernon read the stage adaptation for Big Dawg but knew it wouldn’t fit the Cape Fear Playhouse space, so he suggested Panache Theatrical Company founders Holli Saperstein and Anthony Lawson produce it. This week the show will make its debut in North Carolina at North Street Theatre. Saperstein asked Vernon to direct it.
Numerous plotlines run through “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to over arch the good versus evil theme: “exploration of Western mores vs. Eastern sensibilities, which goes a long way to inform the choices of the characters,” according to Vernon. A love triangle exists and ponderings of the truth and meaning behind liberty arise: Does freedom suffer under the influence of progress?
“These are all themes and discussions we are still experiencing today,” Vernon adds. “The setting of the Old West just serves as a framework for these issues.”
The cast is made up of Bradley Coxe (Ransome Foster), Jen Ingulli (Hallie Jackson), Woody Stefl (Bert Barricune), Juan Fernandez (the Reverend), Robin Dale Robertson (Liberty Valance), Kent West (Marshal Johnson), and Atwood Boyd (Jake Dowitt). Names in the stage version have been changed from the original movie characters.
“If you’ve seen the film and liked it, you’ll find more than enough in the play to enjoy,” Vernon assures. “But if you’ve never seen it, you’ll still be able to appreciate the play. It is its own story, but stays true to the source material.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of its villain is his ability to garner empathy from an audience. Yet, isn’t that what good writing does? Showcases humanity even in the most vile of situations? It allows the audience a form of measure to their darker sides.
“Unwittedly, viewers find commonality,” Roberston notes. “When it’s some character taking badness to its fullest potential, audience members can say, ‘I may be bad at times, but at least I’m not like him.’”
Also they will see how the lawless got pushback under pressure of inevitable change some 200 years ago. It’s something many will connect to today.
“Despite his evil reputation, Liberty is a man facing change—with no abilities to change,” Robertson says. “He can’t conceive of any way to proceed, other than what he instinctually believes as how to deal with a threat. In short, he’s a conflicted nowhere man. That’s what makes him intriguing.”
The law and outlaws are at odds. Whether bounty hunters or bandits, survival of the fittest is the common thread.
“My favorite scene is a confrontation with Ransome Foster,” Stefl tells. “He has arrived in town and has started changing things. He has brought education to the West. And some don’t take kindly to it, especially Valance. In a heated exchange, Ranse asks Bert, ‘Have you ever heard that the pen is mightier than the sword?’ Bert responds by drawing his revolver, aims directly at Foster, and cocks the hammer: ‘You ever see a man holding a pen go head to head with a man holding a peacemaker?’”
Though violence may seem the first response of action most face in a Western, outside of abrasive and aggressive exteriors often lie sensitive, lonely souls. A source of tenderness can be found in the form of loyalty.
“Westerns are a uniquely American mythology,” Coxe adds. “They are everything Americans want to believe about themselves: People are tough, self-sufficient, independent, and informal.”
This is especially true of the women of the time. Though women are often portrayed as “needed to be taken care of,” then they had to be tough broads. They existed in a brutal, lawless world.
“I love Hallie is an independent, self-sufficient woman at a time when this was far from the norm,” Ingulli notes. “I love she can hold her own amongst the men that surround her. I think audiences will respond to her feistiness. She is not shy; she is outspoken and unapologetic. But her bold, brassy self masks a big heart underneath.”
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” will open August 23 and run weekends through September 2. A full interview with the director and cast can be read below.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Aug. 23-Sept. 2, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.
N. Front Theatre (neé City Stage)
21 N. Front St.
Tickets: $18-$25 • 910-679-6037
encore (e): Tell me about your first encounter with the short story/movie/play and how it affected you.
Steve Vernon (SV): I saw the movie on TV when I was a kid. Like a lot of boys my age, I was a fan of Westerns, especially John Wayne films. I think I remember being a bit confused while watching it, as it wasn’t clear who the “white hats” and “black hats” were until the end. I wasn’t used to that, as it seemed like in most films of the genre, it was a clear cut as to the good guys and bad guys. Then two years ago I stumbled onto the script while I was looking at shows for Big Dawg, where I’m the artistic director. I loved the script, but I knew it wouldn’t fit in our space, so I told Holli and Anthony Lawson about it. I was thrilled they decided to put it on, and even more so that they asked me to direct it.
e: This is the first time the play has been done in ILM, right? How does that feel from a director’s chair to debut something? Do you have more of a sense of freedom to tell it your way without the burden of how it’s been done before—or even the burden of recreating an iconic movie?
SV: This is the first time the show has been done in Wilmington, and as far as I know, it hasn’t been done in the state before. The script has the basic elements of the film, but there are some changes to it that allowed for a greater sense of freedom while directing it. There was no feeling that we had to “copy” the movie. If you’ve seen the film and liked it, you’ll find more than enough in the play to enjoy. But if you’ve never seen it, you’ll still be able to appreciate the play. It is its own story, but stays true to the source material.
e: Why do you think society is obsessed with the Wild West—we continuously see it in art, literature, film, TV.
SV: I think we appreciate Westerns because the characters seem to have a code they follow. They are like our version of stories about Knights. Westerns are uniquely American. They are where we see our own myths presented. We are still a young country, without thousands of years of stories to look back on. Westerns show us an idealized version of ourselves—and our past.
e: Tell us a little about the plot line and how its characters drive it and also are relatable to the audience, though the setting is far removed from modern-day society.
SV: There are a few plotlines that run through the show. There’s a the impending fight between good and evil. There’s an exploration of Western mores vs. Eastern sensibilities, which goes a long way to inform the choices of the characters. There is a love triangle, which is resolved in a wonderfully unique way. There are discussions of the nature of liberty (no pun intended) and how it may or may not suffer under the influence of progress. These are all themes and discussions that we are still experiencing today. The setting of the Old West just serves as a framework for these issues.
e: Tech stuff: who’s doing what behind the scenes and what will this world look like? Is it traditional western or have you updated it?
SV: Beau Mumford is designing our lights. He’s doing a great job complimenting Lance Howell’s set, which is gorgeous. Stephanie Scheu Aman has done a fantastic job with the costume design. All the design elements help to capture the feeling of the traditional Western.
encore (e): What is the most intriguing aspect of your character?
Woody Stefly (W)S: Bert is a lonesome, caring soul with a rough, tough, and sometimes abrasive exterior. You don’t want to be on his bad side for sure, but he will also be the guy to save your hide in a bad situation. There is a tenderness to him. It is fun and interesting to play those opposing sides of a man.
Robin Dale Robertson (RDR): As the script presents itself, the theatre-goer might possibly find sympathy for Liberty. At this point in our nation’s historical timeline, the lawless types were getting pushback. Despite his evil reputation, Liberty is still a man facing change—with no abilities to change. He can’t conceive of any way to proceed, other than what he instinctually believes as how to deal with a threat. In short, he’s a conflicted no-where man. That’s what makes him intriguing.
Bradley Coxe (BC): He has arrived in a strange, unexpected world. He goes West thinking he knows the frontier because of the romanticized stories he has read. Once he arrives, he is shocked to find the real West: lawless, dirty, nasty, brutal, even a little boring, but with unexpected beauty. Just when he thinks he has it figured out, he is violently reminded he really doesn’t understand or fit in.
Jen Ingulli (JI): I love that Hallie is an independent, self-sufficient woman at a time when this was far from the norm. I love she can hold her own amongst the men that surround her.
Juan Fernandez (JF): I believe it is the intelligence and elan of the character of Jim [Misten]. For a play set in Western times Jim is quite unusual. He is bright, well-spoken and witty. He has grown up with Hallie, the White owner operator of the saloon almost like brother and sister and was raised by her parents. As a character he is somewhat unique.
e: What about her/him do you think audiences will relate to most?
WS: I think audiences will most likely understand Bert as a man of few necessities. A man who is most at home on the range, herding cattle for weeks at time, earning a meager living that holds him over till the next cattle drive. He is also a patient man, holding out long as it takes for his only true love, Hallie Jackson.
RDR: Often, bad guys are somewhat attractive. Unwittedly, viewers find commonality with them. Everyone in the audience has their “bad side.” When it’s some character taking such badness to its full potential, audience members can say, “I may be bad at times, but at least I’m not like him.”
BC: Foster comes from “The East,” which is 1890 in New York, but today could apply to all modern audience members. Today we have an idealized idea of the Old West from our movies and television and don’t really consider what it would be like to live in a lawless and chaotic society. His shock at the events in the show, and his powerlessness mirrors a reaction we would have today if we were transported to the Old West.
JI: I think audiences will respond to her fiestiness. She is not shy. She is outspoken and unapologetic. But her bold, brassy self masks a big heart underneath. I hope audiences will see that part above all.
JF: I think audiences will find Jim witty and engaging. He has a didactic memory but still knows that his position is hopelessly subject to the times he lives in.
e: What’s the appeal of westerns, in your opinion?
WS: Westerns for me, were something I grew up with. Tales of the old West were fascinating to me. Stories of the law versus the outlaw. Good versus evil. The gold and silver rush. Bounty hunters and bandits. Survival in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. All of these stories are told all over the world and in different fashions; our American fashion is the classic Western and I love it.
RDR: I suppose the raw good versus evil formula found in most all of the Western genre. Clear-cut moral and immoral characters assist in easily defining good and bad. However, a Western like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” belies that thought—where all the characters were tragically flawed, no matter what side they were on.
BC: Westerns are a uniquely American mythology. They are everything Americans want to believe about themselves: people are tough, self-sufficient, independent, and informal. It is the idea of American freedom taken to its extreme. The only law that allows the society to function is the internal code of each individual. That helps make it clear who the bad guys and who the good guys are since there is no external law forcing an individual to behave in a certain way. Because of his code, the “good guy” helps people he doesn’t even like and sometimes at a cost to himself. Conversely, the “bad guy” is allowed by his internal moral compass to go to any violent extreme if it will help him.
JI: The nostalgia of it all. This show reflects a time when people’s intentions seemed more transparent. Good vs. evil. Just a simpler time when choices were driven by basic needs and emotion.
JF: Westerns have long been a staple of American entertainment and a particular favorite of my mom. I think one reason they have lasted for so long is the lines between good evil are clearly defined, if only in the myths that have grown up around and because of them.
e: Fave scene?
WS: My favorite scene is a confrontation with Ransome Foster. He has arrived in town and has started changing things. He has brought education to the west. And some don’t take kindly to it, especially our villain Liberty Valance. In a heated exchange Ranse asks Bert, “Have you ever heard that the pen is mightier than the sword?”
Bert responds by drawing his revolver, aims directly at Foster, and cocks the hammer. “You ever see a man holding a pen go head to head with a man holding a peace maker?” Bert replies.
RDR: In this play, Liberty has only two scenes—one per act. Both are key to the play’s storyline and progression. Of the two, the scene leading to the showdown with the stories “hero,” Ransome Foster is the most satisfying as far as character-development for the actor in me. But Liberty’s most evil scene, wasting the life of Jim, holds a personal thing for me. Jim is played by Juan Fernandez, a friend who came to audition, and I hadn’t seen for over 30 years—since our days studying “acting” in Greensboro. However tragic our characters are in the play, it’s a nice reunion of friends.
BC: The shootout scene. The tension continuously builds to a seemingly certain and violent end. Ironically Foster discovers who he is and what he needs to do, minutes before his life is to end.
JI: I can’t reveal too much for fear of giving away the plot. But there is a scene at the end of the play between Bert and Hallie that shows the love and respect they have for each other. And the sacrifice a human can make for another. It’s just beautiful.
JF: My favorite scene is the scene where Jim and Liberty play Liar’s Dice. Very tense.