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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at TheatreWorks New Milford

By Mary Hembree, The Town Tribune


The spirit of the "Old West" bursts to life on the stage of TheatreWorks New Milford in their production of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  This play conjures up every western you've seen with gun slingers trying to control the town and strong but gentle cowboys doing their best to stop them.

Although the action is confined to The Prairie Belle Saloon we have no trouble envisioning the world outside – wide open spaces, clouds of dust and danger for those unfamiliar with the lay of the land.

Dorothy M. Johnson wrote the short story, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" in 1953.  A prolific writer who grew up in Whitefish, Montana she wrote 17 books and 50 short stories.  Jethro Compton is a contemporary British writer, director and theater producer.  He based his stage play on Dorothy M. Johnson's short story wanting to write a play that "captured the true spirit of the American West."

It's 1890, Liberty Valance and his "boys" are outlaws running rough shod over the town of Twotrees.  Hallie Jackson owns and operates The Prairie Belle Saloon along with her childhood friend, Jim "The Reverend" Mosten.  Bert Barricune is a cowboy, in love with Hallie, and determined to keep the town safe.  Ransome Foster, a New Yorker on his way farther west, is carried into the saloon beaten and bloody from his unfortunate encounter with Liberty Valance on the outskirts of town.

This is a terrific cast and even the smaller parts of Townsfolk, Outlaws (John Bolster, Rufus de Rahm) and the reporter Jake Dowitt (Tom Libonate) are well played.  Gary Cook is wonderful as Jim Mosten and delivers an engaging character you can't help but love.  Yet the nucleus of this fine play belongs to Mark Feltch as Bert Barricune, Ali Bernhardt as Hallie Jackson, James Dietter as Ransome Foster and Francis A. Daley as Liberty Valance.

Bert Barricune is a "cowboy's cowboy" with the height, saunter and rough exterior symbolizing that genre.  You want him as your sidekick, riding shotgun.  His love for Hallie is palpable and he's willing to sacrifice for her happiness.  Mark Feltch is grand in this role, reminiscent of the type of wrangler Jimmy Stewart might bring to life.  Tough, resilient, but full of heart.  Outstanding performance!

Hallie Jackson is a woman raised in the west with a hard shell exterior that tolerates no nonsense, doing what needs to be done.  Brilliantly played by Ali Bernhardt we see Hallie is multi-faceted, strong but also tender, loving and moved to tears by the injustice around her.  Ms. Bernhardt acts with all her being and her delivery is incomparable.

James Dietter reveals the torments of his character superbly – shocked and surprised he was attacked, turning into the slow realization he must stand his ground.  Keeping the slightest glimmer of humor beneath the surface, James Dietter is perfect as Ransome Foster.

For me, the piece de resistance is Mr. Francis A. Daley.  Exuding menace and a hint of evil, he saunters Liberty Valance into the saloon with all the guile of a true gunslinger.  The tilt of his head, timbre of his voice, even his glaring eyes give us a character that is more than capable of murder.  Mr. Daley's performance is exceptional and proves that he can do it all – build the set, direct the actors on the set, act… or just blow everybody away by doing all three!

What a delight to hear the rich resonance of Robert Vaughn as the Narrator!  Even without the playbill I'd know the voice of this accomplished actor and our Ridgefield neighbor.

I was disappointed to read this will be Richard Pettibone's last directing effort as it's the first one I've seen.  Knowing his talents in lighting, sound and set design it was not surprising to see his directing skills are finely honed as well.  Despite the capabilities of this incredible cast, it takes the guidance of a creative director to ensure all the dialogue and actions unfold flawlessly.  Mr. Pettibone is more than up to the task.

As usual, Scott Wyshynski's set design is a marvel right down to the smoky atmosphere.  All the details are there - the saloon floor boards, a brass foot rail and spittoon, even a roughhewn, slag pine coffin.  Remarkable!

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is powerful, emotional and at times comedic.  What is a play for if not to transport you to a different place and time?  Come spend a few hours in the old American West, you can bet your boots you'll be glad you did!

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is at TheatreWorks, New Milford, September 23, 24, 30 and October 1, 2, 7, 8.  For more information go to or call 860-350-6863.

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