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Heading West with ‘Liberty Valance’ at Hopewell Theatre

YOUNGSTOWN — Hopewell Theatre rides into unfamiliar territory with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

Westerns have been a popular movie genre since the art form was born, and it’s enjoying a resurgence on television with “Yellowstone” and its offshoots, but there are far fewer examples of stage Westerns.

That’s one of the things that appealed to Jeanine Rees, who will direct Jethro Compton’s play for a two-weekend run starting Friday.

“I thought it was something local audiences would really enjoy,” she said. “A lot of folks grew up watching Westerns on TV and know the movie — the movie is a classic. I think it will be interesting to folks just to see this place and general time period, these types of characters on stage. It’s exciting that it’s so unusual and entertaining unto itself.”

Compton’s play is based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, which also inspired the 1962 film that starred John Wayne and James Stewart and was directed by John Ford. It tells the story of a young scholar from New York who settles in the Wild West in 1890, where he becomes the target of an outlaw, Liberty Valance, who wants him dead.

“It’s a very dramatic play,” Rees said. “It’s funny. There’s romance. It’s a not a melodrama, but it’s heightened drama. You can have some fun with it. When it’s dramatic, it’s very dramatic.”

The actors definitely have been having fun with it. Even when the actors weren’t working in full costume, Rees said she encouraged them to wear their hats, gun belts and boots, because those things affected the way they walked, the way they carried themselves.

“Who wouldn’t want to grow up and play a cowboy?” she said. “There aren’t many opportunities to wear spurs, walk through swinging saloon doors.”

The cast features Chuck Kettering, Jackie Collins, Matthew Mazuroski, Edward Jordan Jr., Nick Mulichak, Rick Haldi, Molly Galano, Dante Bernard, Dan Pompili, Brian Suchora, Rob Whiting, Richard Smiley and Michael Robinson.

Rees didn’t need to recreate the vistas movie Westerns are known for in Hopewell’s intimate performance space. All of the action takes place in the saloon. But they did need to find period-appropriate clothing, and since there aren’t many Western plays, it’s not like there is an abundance of that attire in the theater’s costume shop.

“It was a little nerve-wracking and we needed a little more budget than usual for all the different elements — the hats and boots and shoes,” Rees said. “There’s only one woman (Jackie Collins) in the whole play (Molly Galano is the narrator), and in some ways it’s harder to do historical clothing for men. The pants fit differently back then. You have to adapt. I think we did pretty well considering the scope of the production. We made a solid effort to make it feel like 1890.”

“Liberty Valance” originally was supposed to close Hopewell’s 2019-20 season. The play had been cast and had one read-through before COVID-19 forced its postponement. When it was time to come back, one cast member had moved away and others had conflicts with the new dates. She didn’t have a second round of auditions, but Rees contacted performers she knew to fill the open spots.

“The people I found, I couldn’t be more thrilled with them. It’s really a great cast, some veteran performers and some relative newcomers. Everyone’s been working hard and having fun and really connecting with each other. It’s so exciting to watch, seeing that magic, those moments that have been happening almost from the very beginning.

“It’s so cool to see how it’s evolved, how the characters have taken shape and the relationships have grown and deepened. They’ve made it really easy for me.”

agray@tribtoday.com

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