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'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' opens at Camelot

As a child, Olivia Harrison enjoyed watching John Wayne westerns with her father. The actor's Oscar-winning performance in “True Grit” is one of her favorites. She was fascinated with the wild West as portrayed in the movies.

“I loved the atmosphere,” she says. “Dirty, gritty sets peopled with actors in elaborate costumes.”

It was fun to watch the gunslingers and their fancy gun play, and then there were the classic stories steeped in themes of good versus evil — and law versus gun, she says.

So, naturally, when Camelot Theatre offered Harrison the opportunity to direct its production of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” she jumped at the chance.

This play by British playwright Jethro Compton opens Friday, Feb. 9, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 25, at the community theater, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $27 or $34 and can be purchased at camelotheatre.org or by calling 541-552-5250. The box office is open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and one hour before performances.

A benefit for Rose Circle Mentoring Network will be at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at Paddington Station in Ashland, Artistic Piano Studio and Black Rock Coffee in Medford, Ray's Food Place in Phoenix, Quality Paperback Books in Talent, or by calling 541-708-6688.

The story follows a young scholar who travels into the lawless society of the old West and ends up beaten and left for dead by notorious outlaw Liberty Valance. Jethro Compton's play is based on a short story by Western fiction writer Dorothy M. Johnson.

Harrison calls "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" a morality play.

"It’s a tale of love, hope and revenge where choices are not all black and white or right and wrong,” she says.

Compton's version is significantly different than the 1962 Paramount Pictures film starring Wayne and James Stewart, Harrison says. Premiering in 2014 in London, the stage version is truer to Johnson's classic 1953 short story.

Western Writers of America rank the short story as the No. 1 western of the 20th century.

Ransome Foster, played by Alex Boyles, leaves New York City in search of a new life in the west. He rides into the dusty streets of Twotrees, beaten and half-dead. Rescued by the town’s folks, he decides to make his home in Twotrees, and with the love a good woman, played by Courtney Crawford, he is given a new purpose. But outlaw Valance, played by Bruno Marcotulli, wants Ransome dead, and his new friends want him to take Liberty out.

“He must make the choice to turn and run or stand and fight for what he believes in,” Harrison says. “Will he make the choice to live or to fight? Will he become the man who shot Liberty Valance?”

Film critics call the movie version of the classic tale directed by John Ford one of the greatest Westerns ever made, but Harrison opted not to watch it again before crafting the production. Like the playwright, she was more interested in capturing the spirit of Johnson’s story.

“The written story is very short and very interesting,” she says. “It's fast-moving with heightened emotion.”

Although the story is set against the backdrop of the wide-open West, its theme is universal and the battle between good and evil familiar.

“The play could be set in any time and in any place,” Harrison says, who believes audiences will relate to the moral dilemma in which the characters find themselves.

Technically, “Liberty Valance” is a memory play.

“It allows us to not be super literal or extremely realistic,” she says. “We have taken liberties with the set, sound and lighting, and the scenes are more about the people reacting to their circumstances."

Rounding out the cast is Elliott Anderson as Bert Barricune and Miykael Moore as Jim “the Reverend” Mosten, who have taken the approach to heart, she adds.

Harrison’s favorite character in the play? Bert Barricune, of course, the cowboy and gunslinger played by John Wayne in the movie version.

An archetype of the people who occupied the unforgiving West — folks with true grit, his moral compass is the most interesting ... and the simplest, she says.

Elliot Anderson, left, Alex Boyles and Courtney Crawford appear in Camelot Theatre's production of 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.' [Photo by Steve Sutfin]