It’s a classic story of good versus evil with the outlaw and the educated city slicker ending up in a gunfight in the Old West, with the outcome leaving audiences to wonder “who done it?” in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Opening on the Warner Robins Little Theatre stage April 28, the play was originally supposed to be a memorial to director Fred Hardin’s father because he had fond memories of growing up watching Westerns with his dad, said Bill Felton, WRLT board of governors member and cast member. However, as it turns out, the play will be a memorial to Hardin, who died April 18.
Celia Hohnadel, assistant director, said that Hardin, a longtime actor and director, had already decided that the play would be his last show. Now, as a tribute, several of the actors will be singing, “Wayfaring Stranger,” a song from the play, at Hardin’s funeral.
Written by Jethro Compton and based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, the play was earlier made into a movie that John Wayne made famous.
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“It has a lot of drama and comedy,” Felton said. “It has the drama, the meat and potatoes of the drama, but it has it comedic moments. It is just a really good story.”
Set in the 1800s, the play has New York City lawyer Ransom Foster (Jim Franz ) moving out West to seek fame and fortune, but while on his journey, he sees some injustices, said Felton, adding that Ransom cannot turn a blind eye when he witnesses an elderly black man being beaten up by an outlaw, Liberty Valance (Charles Bain) and his men. Ransom comes to the rescue of the man, but gets beaten up in the process. Taking refuge in the town of Two Trees, over time Ransom becomes a scholar.
“He begins teaching things like how to read and English literature. Opens up a little school for anyone who is interested,” Felton said. “The problem is … he is teaching women, people of color; anybody who wanted to learn, he would teach. That caused some problems.”
Felton said that during that time period, some people thought education wasn’t for everyone. Consequently, people such as Valance didn’t want change or law and order. As a deterrent for that change, Valance kills a well-known and loved black man named Jim Moston (Driso Clemmons). This act, Felton said, makes “Ransom realize that in order for things to change, you have to stand up and fight for change.”
Ransom takes on Valance in a gunfight, and Valance is killed. With Ransom not being a gunfighter, it leads people to wonder if Ransom actually killed Valance or if he was just getting credit for it. The answer, Felton aIS, leads the audience on a journey intertwined with serious realities of that time as well as a bit of humor and romance.
“It just tells a really incredible story,” he said. “It relates to things that are happening today. In the political climate, it has been such a weird year. Here you have a group of people in the Old West, and when one of their beloved people is killed, they rise up and make change. It’s a glaring example of that, and it sends a nice message.”
Some real antique guns are also being pulled out of the closet, Felton said.
“We have a lot of cast members who are antique gun aficionados, and everyone is bring in (his or her) guns and making sure we are set that way,” he said.
The cast, Hohnadel said, was “off the books” in a few weeks and acting without the script. When she took over, she didn’t have any of Hardin’s notes, but people jumped right in and volunteered to help handle what had to be done.
“We have had a lot of people step up and offer to do things,” she said, explaining that there has been a lot of comradery and working together to make the play a success.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
When: 8 p.m. April 28-29 and May 3-6; 2:30 p.m. April 30
Where: Warner Robins Little Theatre, 502 S Pleasant Hill Rd, Warner Robins
Cost: $16, $14 for students, military and seniors with IDs
Information: 478-929-4579, www.wrlt.org