City Lit’s The Virginian bring the classic western to the stage

Photo by Steve Graue

If you are old enough (and I feel absolutely ancient some days), you might recall watching an NBC TV show called “The Virginian.” Based on a novel by Owen Wister that had already spawned several movies, the series about a ranch in Montana run by a displaced Virginian cowboy ran nine seasons. Now, the latest incarnation of Wister’s classic western comes from City Lit Theatre. L.C. Bernadine and Spencer Huffman’s adaptation may feel choppy or rushed in places, but overall this cleverly done Terry McCabe-directed production works as a fine example of a genre one does not often get to see on stage.

Wister’s 1902 novel, in many ways, established the kind of cowboys that we have become familiar with in the 120 years since and influenced later western novelists like Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. This new adaptation is pretty faithful to the book and, for better or worse, packs a lot into its roughly two hour run-time. From the opening scenes introducing the never-named Virginian, Robert Hunter Bry’s character feels different from his fellow ranchers in more than accent. While capable of scheming (the first thing we see him do is con a fellow traveler out of his reserved bed), the Virginian is basically a stand-up guy, as we see in an early sequence in which he calls out Ben Auxier’s Trampas, the “bad guy” of the novel and play. (When Trampas calls him a son of a bitch for this, the Virginian responds, “When you call me that…smile,” the first usage of that line in fiction history.)

Bry is excellent as the stoic and somewhat enigmatic title character (two more characteristics that Wister contributed to the cowboy archetype). His straightforward, calm demeanor contrasts not only with Trampas but with just about all of the other men he works with. He seems more comfortable in quiet scenes with the ranch’s owner, Judge Taylor (Varris Holmes) than joking with the boys, and sense from the outset that he is much more honorable than most. When Falstreau’s Molly Wood comes to town and Trampas and the others make fun of her, the Virginian puts a stop to it immediately (a thing that does not go unnoticed by the young transplanted Vermont woman, as she relates after they start seeing each other).

Falstreau brings a strength of her own to her role of a woman who believes in her calling and wants to bring some culture to the Wild West. Despite the chemistry that develops between Molly and the Virginian, it is clear that she did not come all that way to meet a rugged man (no matter what her mother and aunt back East—played by Hilary Hensler and Marssie Mencotti, who seems to be channeling Estelle Getty in “Golden Girls”—might think. In fact, her independence causes her to rebuff his (tentative) advances for a long time…despite continued and overt matchmaking by the judge’s wife (a wonderful Andie Dae).

This story is not as obviously black and white as many westerns came to be; there are many shades of gray here. Among the likable characters who fall under Trampas’ bad influence are David Fink’s Shorty, an uneducated and too-easily manipulable ranch hand with a powerful affection for animals—especially his longtime horse, portrayed by one of the clever puppets designed by the Puppet Company—and Aaron Sarka’s Steve, an erstwhile friend of the Virginian who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. But even that bad influence itself stems from Trampas’ anger at the innate unfairness of a system that sees owners get rich while workers struggle, an oddly modern-sounding sentiment that has clear parallels to today.

McCabe’s direction is quick-paced and clear. Aided by live underscoring from Kelsey Vandervall and Liz Cooper’s lighting, he sets a mood easily and maintains it well. Ray Toler’s set bends and folds and unfolds in multiple ways, allowing many different locations to live on a small stage. (The choreography of all of the set changes must have taken significant rehearsal time by itself.) This is a good-looking play as much as it is a well-acted one.

This is not to say, though, that it doesn’t have problems. One of the most awkward issues stems from those otherwise magnificent horse puppets. A scene in which Molly discovers the Virginian lying shot on a mountainside ends up requiring far too many seconds of dimmed lights and actors’ struggles to get both onto horses, and although it is indeed a marvelous visual once it is accomplished, it seems hardly worth it for the one-line flash of a moment that follows. At other times, the condensing of a complicated plot—necessitated by the adaptation from page to stage—causes confusion about how or why something is happening. Trampas, for example, goes from clear-headed, ego-driven nastiness to drunken idiocy seemingly from one moment to the next as he calls out the Virginian for an act that, it is strongly implied, he did.

These peccadillos aside, though City Lit’s The Virginian is an enjoyable and well-executed piece of theatre. It runs through February 20, and tickets are available at city

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *