Seasoned moviegoers will recall Jimmy Stewart trying to tame a cow town with a law book in the vintage Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Who knew there was a theatrical version?
The recent adaptation, by Jethro Compton, is on stage at Santa Ana’s Attic Community Theatre, and it offers a different perspective than the original on two counts — the presence of an illiterate but eager-to-learn saloon employee who becomes a focal point in the drama and a pre-gunfight chat fest between the lawyer and the outlaw that dilutes the tension somewhat.
Director Kathy Paladino has elicited sterling performances from her cast, most impressively that of Stephanie Garrison as the strong-willed saloon keeper who keeps both of her suitors at bay. Garrison attacks her role much like a Calamity Jane type, turning up the steam splendidly when hot-tempered emotion is required.
In the role of Rance, made indelible on screen by Stewart, Mark Tillman projects determination and inner strength as he proceeds to educate the townsfolk, possibly at the risk of his life. Tillman shines as a voice of reason in a place devoid of it.
Michael J. Keeney channels his inner John Wayne to realistically enact the tough, gruff cowboy who reluctantly insures the newcomer’s safety. Angela Watson is excellent as the server who can't read but memorizes vocal passages, then figures in a horrific abduction.
The title role, portrayed so memorably on screen by Lee Marvin, falls to Robert Dill, who gives the outlaw far more cultural polish than might be expected. His showdown with Tillman is preceded by a battle of wits, guns on the table, which plays out far past the point of endurance to the depths of tedium.
Two musicians – guitarists Frank Paladino and Sarah Rohrer – appear periodically, much like Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye in “Cat Ballou,” to propel the storyline.
The authentic Western saloon setting designed by Jim Huffman serves as a realistic backdrop for Austin Schroeter’s fine lighting effects and Gordon Buckley’s effective period costumes.
Purists may wince when Rance and Liberty wax philosophical, but “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is an engrossing re-imagination of a long-familiar story line at the Attic Community Theater.
If You Go
What: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
Where: Attic Community Theater, 2834 S. Fairview St., Santa Ana
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 through Oct. 21