Wanted: Discerning Theatre Goers to See Falcon“™s Liberty Valance

By Laurel Humes

There is a scene in Falcon Theatre“™s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that is so gripping, so well-acted and directed that, after you are released from its grip, you realize again the unique power of live theater.

It is 1890 in a saloon in a tiny Western town. The town has a marshal, but is really ruled by outlaw Liberty Valance and his gang. Hallie Jackson owns the saloon and Jim, a young black man, works there.

Newly arrived in town is Ransome Foster, a scholarly young man from New York. He begins teaching the illiterate adults, including Jim, how to read. And that could upset the balance of power for Valance ““ educated people can read laws and even make laws.

“œAre you the n***** been learning how to read?“ Valance (Paul Morris) has caught Jim (Derek Snow) alone in the saloon. Over the next few minutes, Valance forces Jim to play a “œliars“™ dice“ game. Behind Jim, another outlaw toys with a rope, which soon becomes a noose. Valance goads Jim into calling him a liar, an insult that could be deadly.

And that closes Act 1. Whew.

Director Tara Williams and an able cast have mounted a fine production ““ and the regional premiere ““ of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The story came from a 1953 short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, which also was the basis for the 1962 movie. When playwright Jethro Compton couldn“™t get the rights to the movie, he based his script on the original short story. The stage play premiered in 2014.

Falcon sets the scene before the show even starts with a fine set, credited to Williams and Ted J. Weil. The saloon interior ““ where the entire play takes place ““ is rustic and authentic, decorated with just enough furniture and props to be realistic but not get in the way of the 10-member cast.

Saloon-owner Hallie is at the center of the show and the only female character. Actress Erin Carr“™s Hallie is tough and fiercely independent, surviving in a man“™s world by eschewing any feminine mannerisms. Her face is dirty, she sits with legs apart, and she pretends not to see the affection gunslinger Bert Barricune has for her.

Barricune, played by Allen R. Middleton, does love Hallie. But until the arrival of potential rival Ransome Foster, there has been no need for the gruff cowboy to voice his feelings.

Middleton“™s fine performance is a highlight of the show. Over the course of the play, he evolves Barricune from a stereotype into a man of such empathy that the sacrifice he makes for love is entirely believable. And, along the way, it is a joy to watch his easy, authentic way with a cowboy hat and a gun belt.

Tall and thin, Craig Branch plays Ransome with rounded shoulders and a forward-thrusting head to display an intensity that rarely lets up. His Act 2 tension-filled scene with Valance (Paul Morris) gives Branch the chance to display more of his physical acting skills ““ trembling fingers and voice, but a defiant, rigid spine.

Liberty Valance is a melodrama. Expect some overwrought acting and a few over-long scenes. But it is also a tight plot, with unexpected, Catch-22 twists that catch you by surprise.

Falcon“™s production lightens the mood with live and recorded music at welcomed intervals. The “œsoundtrack“ is great ““ all the Western songs you haven“™t heard in years, ending, appropriately, with Gene Pitney“™s “œThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.“

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance runs Thursdays-Saturdays through Feb. 11 at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport. Tickets are available at 513-479-6783 or at http://falcontheater.net.

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