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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Tacoma Little Theatre takes on gritty Western

Left Jacob Tice as Ransome Foster and Nick Butler as Jim “The Reverend” Mosten. Photo courtesy Dennis K Photography

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Longtime and much celebrated Tacoma theatrical director David Domkoski directs his last show in Tacoma before moving to the East Coast. The play is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This modern classic set in the Wild West in 1890 is based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson. It is best known as a 1962 movie directed by John Ford and starring James Stewart and John Wayne.

I saw the movie when it was first released. I remember nothing about it but the title. I never before saw the play. I'm glad that I have now, and I'm especially glad I saw this version with these actors and this wonderful set by Blake York and direction by Domkoski.

This play is gritty and realistic. It is simple and straight-forward with nothing fanciful and nothing superfluous (except, perhaps the use of a narrator, as the story would have held up as acted with exposition).

About York's set: it is dark and dirty looking, the interior of the Prairie Belle Saloon in the Western town of Twotrees (we don't know what state it is in, just somewhere in the West). On the rough, unpainted walls are wanted posters and photos of dance hall girls and a flyer for the opera. Above these are trophy animal hides and horns. It looks as authentic as any Western saloon in the movies and more authentic than many.

Into this saloon comes Ransome Foster (Jacob Tice) unconscious, half dead and carried over the shoulder of Bert Barricune (Chris James) a rough cowpoke who is in love with the saloon owner, Hallie Jackson (Jill Heinecke). Bert revives the severely beaten Foster whom he had rescued after he was attacked by a trio of ruffians. There's no proof, but everyone knows the men who beat him almost to death were Liberty Valance and two of his gang (two unnamed ensemble actors who wear masks and never speak). They call the Marshall Johnson (Ben Stahl) who says he can't do anything because there is no proof it was Valance.

Everyone knows that sooner or later somebody is going to shoot Valance. No spoiler here, the title of the play gives that away. The mystery of who shoots him is only a minor part of the play. What is more major is the love triangle that develops between Bert, Hallie and Ransome, and a look into the hearts and minds of these apparently simple people as they struggle with issues of love, hope, honor and revenge. Thrown into this mix is a harsh and unsparing look at the issue of racism at a time shortly after the Civil War. Jim Mosten (Nick Butler) is the only Black man in town and best friend of Hallie since childhood. He is called "The Reverend" because of his phenomenal ability to memorize and recite passages of scripture. Ransome teaches Jim to read and write and believes he can become a great man.

I will not go into how all this plays out but will only say it is a strong, meaningful and emotionally engaging story that is well acted and is totally believable. It presents issues and characters that might seem simplistic on the surface but are much more complex than they appear. You'll come to love Hallie and Jim, despise Valance, understand the weakness of Marshall Johnson, and greatly admire both Ransome and Bert.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through June 18, $24 adults, $22 seniors/students/military, $20 12 and younger, pay what you can performance Thursday, June 15, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N "I" St., Tacoma, 253.272.2281, tacomalittletheatre.com

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Christopher Titus

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