A Complex Battle of Good Versus Evil
If you're of a certain age, the title "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" may evoke audio memories of Gene Pitney crooning on the AM radio in your parent's 1962 Oldsmobile. If classic films are more your bent, then John Ford's uniting John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin in a mega-star acting tug of war may elicit a nod.
Forget about it. New memories are being made at TheatreWorks New Milford with this Western. Jethro Compton's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is a collection of performances that you'll want to remember.
The cast members, masterfully assembled by director Richard Pettibone (who, if one is to believe the program notes, is "riding into the sunset" after this show), grab the grit and depth of their roles and make the evening thoroughly engaging.
When Francis A. Daley strides on to stage as title character/supreme villain Liberty Valance, there is an audible gasp in the audience. This character is pure, glimmering evil, and Daley is elegant in his portrayal.
Ali Bernhardt as Hallie Jackson, saloon owner, elusive love interest and wonderfully complex voice of prairie reason, moves through the character evolution required with deft skill. Her knowing look to the audience in her final scene perfectly punctuates her full command of the complex battle between good and evil.
The play opens and closes with the funeral of Bert Barricune, drifter and cowboy and, to most, a cipher. It is the great fortune of the audience that in most of the play's two acts, Mark Feltch is alive and well and commanding the stage. Feltch is well traveled and experienced in both theater and film. He brings every bit of that experience to the role, never missing a bit of dialogue that will bring a chuckle or a somber, knowing nod.
James Dietter portrays the itinerant legal scholar Ransome Foster with a fine blend of arrogance and naiveté. As he moves from beating victim at the inception of the legend to emerging politician at the end, we understand every shading in his performance, down to the quivering hand that betrays him when he tries to hold a revolver.
And, we have left one principal actor whose appearance in Act 1 is so compelling that when the audience helplessly watches his undoing and fatal exit, there is a groan from several of the seats. Gary Cook as Jim "The Reverend" Mosten delivers an indelible performance that boldly punctuates our own current social turmoil, deftly using a tale set in 1890 to hold an unwavering spotlight on 2016.
The supporting cast — Jonathan Ross, Tom Libonante, John Bolster and Rufus de Rahm — is essential to the story. Deftly moving from funeral singing to outlaw thuggery, they do a masterful job of filling in the details and illuminating the dark corners.
Scott Wyshynski's well-designed set and Lesley Neilson-Bowman's authentic costumes create and sustain a mood that draws the audience in and makes them a part of the town.
This is great theater. Don't forget about it.