‘Liberty Valance’ at Hopewell Hits Bullseye

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There are very, very few stage westerns.  Perhaps it is a genre that best plays on television and the big screen, plus stage versions can be difficult in replicating the old west in many ways. 

With that being said, the Hopewell Theatre has dusted off a dandy of a western in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  Based on the story by Dorothy M. Johnson, “Valance” was also a movie western starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in 1962 and the basis for a pop hit sung by Gene Pitney. 

The stage version is written by Jethro Compton.

The plot surrounds the town of Twotrees somewhere out West in 1890.  The entire action takes place in the Prairie Belle Saloon. An educated tin-horn from the East settles in the quaint little town and makes waves by offering education to the populace.  As lights come up, the audience is introduced to Ransome Foster.  Foster was found beaten up and lying in the prairie by Bert Barricune.

Berricune drags the unconscious Foster into the saloon and the action begins.

Chuck Kettering plays Foster, the innocent traveler heading west before he was set upon by Liberty Valance and his gang.  Kettering offers a many layered portrayal of Foster.  At first appearance, as he recovers from his harrowing experience, he is totally unaware of the way of life in the wild west. Being an educated man, and being able to read, he eventually attempts to educate the locals. Kettering blossoms into a whole new side of Foster as he warms up to the local town and introduces a small group of adults to reading and William Shakespeare.

Kettering’s portrayal shows Foster’s love and appreciation for education and the beautiful words contained in his collection of books he brought with him. He handles the character with grace and uncovers a personality in Foster that is very easy for the audience to like. Foster takes particular interest in Hallie Jackson, the owner of the saloon, and Jim Mosten, a Negro gentleman that helps out around the saloon.

Jackson, played by Jackie Collins, is a feisty, no nonsense business owner who knows her business and what she likes and doesn’t like. And one thing she doesn’t like is the thought of learning how to read. She never saw much use for it. Collins is a firebrand with Jackson. She draws an interesting character and makes Jackson a believable character for the time. Her energy and quick delivery make for some great dialogue exchanges.

Edward Jordan, Jr. handles the role of Mosten quite well. The character has come to learn that his post at the saloon is about all he can hope for because of his race. That soon changes when he has Foster teach him how to read. Mosten also has a very unique talent. He can hear something once and repeat it verbatim as it seems permanently planted in his brain. Jordan is fun to watch as he proudly recites line after line and verse after verse with a proud wide-eyed grin.

Matthew Mazuroski creates a great character as Bert Barricune.

Barricune is your typical western cowboy fresh off the dusty prairie complete with hat, gun and spurs.  There is little to no back story on Barricune so the audience can only assume he has had a storied life perhaps as a gunslinger of some repute. Mazuroski is a thrill to watch as he pieces this character together. His belief level is first rate and no matter what his past, the audience feels a bond with him as they learn more of who he is. He can be hard, he can be mean, but he also has a real soft side.

The local law, Marshall Johnson, is played by Rick Haldi.  ohnson is an aging poor excuse for any type of lawman. As he shuffles along from place to place, he would much rather offer advice to others rather than get involved in any way himself. Haldi plays the old man with a flowery glint in his eye and a somewhat whiny delivery that more or less translates into “cowardice.”

The title character, Liberty Valance, is played by Nick Mulichak. And as every actor knows, the villains are the most fun to play. And Mulichak has a field day with Valance. He presents him as very understated and laid back and in doing so creates a character that is most intimidating and frightening. His controlled behavior and controlled responses make for a very scary gunfighter.

Molly Galano shows up as the Narrator at the beginning of each scene and helps to tie action together.  Others offering splendid support in various roles are Dante Bernard, Dan Pompili, Brian Suchora, Rob Whiting and Richard Smiley. Michael Robinson wanders across the stage during scene changes offering authentic harmonica music that adds to the atmosphere.

Director Jeanine Rees has put a great production together. This show was pure fun. Lots of comedy, particularly in Act I. and drama in Act II. It is clear she enjoyed her job with this show. It was something very different and welcome. 

Set design by Rob Whiting is spectacular. You couldn’t ask for a better recreation of a western movie saloon, complete with a second floor, realistic lanterns, believable tables and chairs and enough whiskey to satisfy the most thirsty cowhand.

Regina Rees gets huge kudos for costume design. Attention to detail was apparent in every outfit as she put together a wardrobe that could have rivaled any western look in any western movie from the past. Everything looked worn and dusty and old.

If you are looking for a real different theater experience, check out “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” this coming weekend.  ou’ll feel like you are watching one of those great old western classics from the past.

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” will continue June 3, 4 at 7:30 p.m. June 5 at 2 p.m. Contains adult language.

Pictured: The cast of Hopewell Theatre’s production of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” includes (front) Jackie Collins and Chuck Kettering; and (rear) Edward Jordan Jr. and Matthew Mazuroski.

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