Quote of the Day: I think the only way to do a Western without horses and cinematic panoramas is to push style and theatricality with movement, music, lights, and a spare, elegant stage. Karen Zacarías, playwright.

Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Marian Starrett), Ricardo Chavira (Joe Starrett) and Juan Arturo (Bobby Starrett) in Shane, on stage at the Guthrie Theater thru 8/27/23. Photo: Dan Norman

The only thing I knew about Shane going into the play was that it was a Western movie. I read in the program notes that the movie was made in 1953, starring Alan Ladd. I have not seen the movie, nor read the book by Jack Schaefer, published in 1949. It’s a classic Western. When you think of Westerns, you probably picture people like John Wayne riding through the mountains and desserts, rattle snakes, villains and outlaws, and of course saloons and gun fights. Hollywood, and many older Western writers, emphasized that image, burning it into our minds. They left out some details. Namely, that one in four cowboys were Black. Many ranchers were Mexican. The land that Europeans claimed, fought over and fertilized, was in fact not theirs to buy and sell in the first place. The land was the home of the tribal nations already populating North America. Our nation has a complicated past. 

Cast of Shane, on stage at the Guthrie Theater thru 8/27/23. Photo: Dan Norman

Playwright Karen Zacarías has written a new adaptation of Schaefer’s novel Shane. What sets this story apart from your typical Western is that it focuses on one family, the Starrett’s, and the playwright highlights the varied voices of this era. They have been displaced. Bob Starrett (Ricardo Chavira) moved his family North for land and opportunity. His wife Marian (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) was the daughter of a Mexican landowner/rancher, and they were driven off their land when the United States government acquired their land in the Southwest. The story is narrated by their son Bobby (Juan Arturo) who moves seamlessly between the adult Bob who is remembering his family’s story, and playing the little boy, who watched it all unfold. We see the story through the eyes of young Bobby, how he admires his father and loves his mother. He’s fascinated by the tall, dark stranger Shane (William DeMeritt) who saunters onto their ranch one hot, summer day, and changes everything. Shane would like to leave his past where it lies and settle down. He longs to be part of a family. He feels an attraction to Marian and the need to protect her.

Ricardo Chavira (Joe Starrett), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Marian Starrett), Shayna
Jackson (Winona Stephens), Bill McCallum (Luke Fletcher), Juan Arturo (Bobby Starrett) in Shane at the Guthrie Theater, thru 8/27/23. Photo: Dan Norman

Luke Fletcher (Bill McCallum) rides in with his Lakota interpreter Winona (Shayna Jackson) with offers to buy Starrett’s land, then threatens to take it, and to use whatever means he can to make that happen. One man is shot, Ernie (Grant Goodman), as a warning. The hired gun Stark Wilson (also Grant Goodman) faces off with Shane. Later Shane and Fletcher have it out at the saloon, where the owner (Terry Hempleman) warns them to stay cool and that they’ll pay for any damages they incur. A character named Chris (Mikell Sapp) switches sides when he realizes how ruthless Fletcher is. (I really enjoyed Sapp’s portrayal of this character.)

The cast of Shane, on stage at the Guthrie Theater, thru 8/27/23. Photo: Dan Norman

There were so many cool choices for staging and action in this play. As Zacarías expresses in the above quote, how do you bring a Western to stage without the cinematography? They do it with a grand set design (Lex Liang) that is stark and multi-layered, mixed with lighting (Pablo Santiago) to highlight the action and give sense of place and time, also creating mood. An especially iconic Western motif is when Shane enters the saloon for the showdown, popping through the saloon doors, with that music playing and dramatic lighting. A memorable moment in the production. Then, young Bobby, peering in under those same doors, when we chuckle at his actions, but hold our breathe in fear of what could happen next. And, of course, the classic costume design (Trevor Bowen) with the hats, dusters, boots and spurs, swishing skirts, and traditional Lakota beads. Fight direction by Sordelet Inc. provided the action and some unique staging.

Movement Director Vanessa Severo created one of the most fascinating elements of this production. Her movement choices are integral in telling this story. I loved how the actors used their bodies to produce rhythms, by tapping arms, legs, and heart, or stomping their feet, creating the music we recognize from the Western soundtrack, the percussive beat of the horses’ hooves, the heartbeat of the people. Matthew M. Nielson provides an original sound score that captures the mood of the genre. It was excellent.

Grant Goodman (Stark Wilson) and William DeMeritt (Shane) in Shane, on stage at the Guthrie Theater, thru 8/27/23. Photo: Dan Norman

Blake Robison directs this terrific stage adaptation of the classic novel Shane. The production is co-produced by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the Guthrie Theater. They have assembled a dynamite creative team to bring this new work to life on stage. It’s a thrilling 90 minutes of theater, no intermission. Go to the Guthrie Theater for tickets and showtimes, through August 27, 2023.

Go. Create. Inspire!

Journaling Prompt: What are your images of the Wild West? Have you read, or seen, any contemporary stories that highlight the varied voices of the past? Do you have a favorite Western character? 

I thought of my dad, who passed away last December, as I watched this play. His favorite genre to read was Westerns. He had all the Louis L’Amour books, plus many more by other authors, and his favorite place to visit was Medora, ND. My friend Krista Rolfzen Soukup (Blue Cottage Agency) works with many authors in the Western genre. She has encouraged me to read and review a few of the novels from her clients. Many new authors are highlighting the varied voices of this beloved genre. I was pleased to read more about the strong women of the time period in Prospects of a Woman by Wendy Voorsanger