City Lit opens its 41st season with The Virginian: Horseman Of The Plains. Adapted for the stage by L.C. Bernadine and Spencer Huffman and directed by artistic director Terry McCabe. The play is based on the 1902 novel of the same name by Owen Wister and chronicles the exploits of a cowboy referred to as “The Virginian”. From the 1920’s to the 60’s, westerns were very popular in film and on tv. John Wayne’s popularity can be directly linked to the many cowboy characters he played on the big screen. Dozens of western shows still run on tv, Rawhide, the Big Valley, The Wild, Wild West to name a few. So, what is the fascination with Westerns? For many people Westerns represent an idealized time in America. A time in our history where hard work was rewarded with prosperity, life was simpler and good always triumphed over evil. Wister’s novel is credited with creating the “cowboy” archetype as well as the first tough guy saying, “When you call me that…smile.” Which to me has always been…. whatever. But I digress, the popularity of this story has kept it in print to this day and has even spawned a Broadway play.
An ensemble of 22, actors, puppeteers and a cellist bring this western to life. The play is a “rootin, tootin” good time and what I found delightful is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you’ve seen a western you know there’s a tone to them. Men are macho and women are damsels in distress. What I found interesting is this adaptation seems to buck that trend, which is why you should see the play. Terry does a great job capturing the romanticized tone of this period in time as it pertains to the depictions we’ve seen on screen. We all know the reality of life on the plains was quite different. Robert Hunter Bry plays The Virginian and captures the self-assuredness, integrity and chivalry associated with cowboys. He’s works with other cowboys for a cattleman named Judge Taylor (Varris Holmes) moving his herd cross country. Amongst the group there are the expected group of characters. Steve (Aaron Sarka) is The Virginian’s good friend, Scipio (Huy Nguyen) is soft spoken, but when he speaks, he makes a point, Shorty (David Fink) hardworking, good natured, trusting, has a horse he loves named Pancho. And of course, we have to have a villain amongst the group. Trampas (Ben Auxier) who, if they do the stage play Popeye, is the perfect Bluto. Gruff, coarse and rude but as with other characters poses some fair questions, which I wonder is a result of the adaptation or was it already in the novel. Throughout the play Trampas and The Virginian are at odds, whether playing cards or competing for a job. What they don’t compete for, surprisingly, is the affections of the new school marm Molly Wood (Liz Falstreau). Molly Woods comes to town not filled with naiveté but with resolve. She is here to do a job and plans to focus on that and that alone. We have the resident busybody Mrs. Taylor (Andie Day), she spends the show operating in conjecture and gossip.
I would like to give special recognition to Linsey Falls, Sarah Franzel, Adele Watel , David Wiesenhahn and Kelsee Vandervall. Kelsee Vandervall is the cellist and composer and provides the live soundtrack. The rest are the puppeteer’s giving life to the “stage horses” and providing sound effects throughout the play.
An interesting observation about this play are some of the themes that are introduced. As I stated earlier, I don’t know if they come from the novel or the adapters. Several of the cowboys openly muse about them doing all of the work but reap little of the reward. There are also questions about how The Judge came into his wealth and what has he done to deserve it. Honey Wiggins (DC Cathro), another local man of means, behaves as if his wealth gives him carte blanche to act anyway he desires. And while it’s clear that the Virginian and the other cowboys like Shorty they do speak to down to him at times. There’s a moment in the beginning of the play that Shorty makes a decision involving his beloved horse Pedro based on advice from The Virginian. It’s actually our villain, Trampas who tells Shorty to give himself some credit, because no one else will. The female characters are as strong if not stronger than their counterparts. Other themes are prevalent, it’s probably the time that we live in now that I register them differently than I would have 5 years ago. Or it could be that I’m just thinking too hard.
The play doesn’t take itself seriously. The actors’ performances aren’t campy, which could easily become annoying after a few minutes of exaggerated accents and too many “yeehaws”. Instead, they play it straight. The performances are grounded and ring. Nor are the themes addressed debated at nauseum. Feeling more like epiphany’s the characters have, so it doesn’t of as judgmental.
The Virginian runs through February 7. For information and ticket purchase go to https://www.citylit.org.
Photo credit: Steve Graue.