Imagine a society that is changing at a dizzyingly rapid pace. New people are moving in, spreading unsettling ideas. The traditional hierarchy is being threatened as members of once-subservient groups begin to assert themselves. A thuggish, egotistical bully emerges, carrying out a self-appointed mission to banish the unwanted, keep the less-deserving in line, and generally resist change.
Needless to say, we’re talking about the Old West, a time and place where so much American mythology was born. The best of its stories, such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, remain deeply resonant, with echoes of such current controversies as immigration, gun rights, and the proper limits of personal freedom.
Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story was famously adapted into a 1962 movie by John Ford, which is deservedly considered a classic. A few years ago, English playwright Jethro Compton created a new stage version, which is having its American premiere through March 20 at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre.
Despite many differences in details and emphasis, the plot is basically that of the movie. A young lawyer (Jacques Roy) arrives in a small Western town after being severely beaten by the sadistic local outlaw, Liberty Valance (Jeff Kober). A local rancher who prides himself on his prowess with a gun (a terrific Gregory Harrison) advises him to move on. When he opts to stay and open a small school, he unwittingly creates a love triangle between himself, the rancher, and an attractive saloon owner — and sets up an inevitable second, definitive confrontation with his nemesis.
The two adaptations are, needless to say, quite different. Compton’s play does not have the subtlety or lyricism of Ford’s great film, which manages to convey its themes through subtext and imagery. But it, too, has its assets, including two gripping scenes in which tension gradually builds before exploding into violence. Director Jenny Sullivan modulates them beautifully. Aided enormously by Trevor Wheetman’s original fiddle music, her excellent cast gradually overcomes the script’s weaknesses (including an annoying voice-over narration) to create a compelling, even urgent piece of theater.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays at Rubicon Theatre through March 20. For more information, call (805) 667-2900 or see rubicontheatre.org.