You can practically feel the prairie wind blowing tumbleweeds past the rustic saloon in the right-smart U.S. premiere of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre.
Despite its familiar title and basic plot, this recent stage adaptation by British playwright Jethro Compton takes strikingly different aim at the original Dorothy M. Johnson short story that inspired the classic John Ford film.
From his outsider's perch, Compton celebrates the mythos of the American Wild West during the late 1800s with a nostalgic purity that's refreshingly free of the cynical revisionism that colors so many modern efforts to reboot the genre.
Nowhere is this authenticity more apparent than in Gregory Harrison's performance as Bert Barricune, the grizzled cowboy from mythical Two Trees. From his laconic inflections to his straddling gait, the chaps-clad Harrison makes Barricune so much his own that John Wayne's portrayal of the character fades from memory.
Retaining the original story's focus and seamlessly incorporating passages of Johnson's lean, muscular prose, Barricune becomes the reluctant conscience and mentor to tenderfoot Easterner Ransom Foster (Jacques Roy), following the latter's savage beating at the hands of outlaw Liberty Valance (Jeff Kober).
For the Record
An earlier version of this review misspelled Jeff Kober's name as Korber.
The clash between the fading glory of Barricune's frontier ethos and the civilizing influence of the educated, well-heeled Foster crystallizes in their well-played rivalry for saloon owner Hallie (Sylvie Davidson), whose waifish looks belie the feisty independence in her snappy comebacks and put-downs.
The stoic Barricune isn't one for fancy speeches, so articulating the sensibilities of his untamed West ironically falls to Kober's superbly villainous Liberty, a role Compton expands to engage his victims in Quentin Tarantino-esque philosophical repartee before killing them. Naturally, Joseph Fuqua's amusingly lily-livered marshal is of no help in the impending showdown between Valance and Foster.
If events force Harrison's Barricune to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, the flip side of the play's moral ambiguity could be better served if Roy showed more of Foster's less heroic side in doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. When he stays in town to educate Hallie and her black assistant (excellent Dorian Logan) it's as much out of hubris and petty vengeance as noble ambition.
Original music scored and performed live by Trevor Wheetman furthers the impeccable period feel in Jenny Sullivan's staging, which succeeds as both a nostalgic homage to the rugged individualism of the Wild West and a self-aware reflection on the double-edged civilizing tide that laid its spirit to rest on Boot Hill.
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"
Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 20.
Info: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes