The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance rides into the Rubicon

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

The mythos of the Old West looms large in the American consciousness. Its wide open skies, sun-baked expanses, lawless lands and frontier-hardened denizens have been celebrated in everything from literature to song to film. Only theatre, which brings to mind Shakespeare and Chekhov, not Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, has resisted the siren song of this distinctive genre.

Until now, that is. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance makes its United States premier at the Rubicon, and it’s got all the trademarks one would expect of its species: a small town, a cowboy, a city slicker from New York, a whiskey-drinking, sharp-tongued saloon owner and an outlaw whose hat is as black as his heart. “We’re in the mythical West,” explains director Jenny Sullivan. “The essence of Westerns in film really permeated how the production looks.”

The play takes place entirely in a saloon, the watering hole of a podunk town somewhere in the Western Territories called Two Trees, run by the tough-as-nails Hallie Jackson (Sylvie Davidson) and goodhearted Reverend Jim (Dorian Logan), a black man orphaned at the local whorehouse and raised by Jackson’s parents. Cowboy Bert Barricune (Gregory Harrison) carries in the stranger Ransome Foster (Jacques Roy), a lawyer from New York who has been beaten and left for dead by the vicious Liberty Valance (Jeff Kober).

As Eastern transplant Foster heals, he begins to carve a place for himself in Two Trees, starting the town’s first school and falling in love with Jackson. He finds a romantic rival in Barricune, a true man of the West and Foster’s polar opposite. In Jim, a humble man with a keen intelligence, he discovers an apt pupil, and the two bond. Jim’s education has dire repercussions, however, forcing a crisis that brings all characters to a moral reckoning.

“It’s about power, it’s about integrity, it’s about courage … and revenge to a certain extent,” says artistic director Karyl Lynn Burns. “I think we were interested in how timely some of the themes were. Who wields power? The biggest guns? The loudest voice? And it’s kind of the Wild West right now,” she adds with a laugh, referencing the media circus of the 2016 election season.

Interestingly, it was a young British playwright who transferred this most American of stories to the stage. Jethro Compton, who made his name in England with the WWI-based The Bunker Trilogy, is a self-avowed lover of Westerns. A lightbulb went off when he saw John Ford’s 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Compton couldn’t obtain rights to the film; instead he worked from the original source material, the short story by renowned Western writer Dorothy M. Johnson. When Liberty Valance premiered in 2014 at the Park Theatre in London, critics had seen nothing like it, but by and large warmed to its witty dialogue and compelling storytelling.

Sylvie Davidson and Gregory Harrison in the American premier of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Photo by Jeanne Tanner

Sylvie Davidson and Gregory Harrison in the American premier of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Photo by Jeanne Tanner

Bringing this groundbreaking play to the United States for the very first time is a feather in the Rubicon’s cap. Burns had help from Steven Schipper of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. “[Schipper] had seen the production in London, and acquired the rights for the Canadian premier,” she explains. Schipper thought it would make a great fit for Ventura County, considering its proximity to and history with Hollywood, and offered to negotiate a 2-for-1 deal.

The set (Thomas Giamario, T. Theresa Scarano) and costumes (Alex Jaeger) draw inspiration from Westerns in film and television. But for the story itself, director Sullivan was careful to hold the movie classic at arm’s length. “I don’t like to look at things on any of the stuff I do, someone else’s interpretation,” she says. “I want to come from my own perspective.” The play’s story is tighter and sparer than the film, trusting the characters to bring the Wild West to vivid life. In this the cast gets a solid assist from the haunting soundtrack. Sullivan struck gold with actor/musician Trevor Wheetman (husband to lead actress Davidson), who composed an original score for the production and plays it live onstage. His homespun American folk compositions pulse with the spirit of the story — and indelibly evoke its time and place.

This tale of love and honor, ambition and revenge, taps into universal human truths. But its gritty soul lies squarely in the American West of myth and imagination, making Liberty Valance’s premier at the Rubicon a fitting homecoming.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays through March 20 at the Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura, 667-2900 or