," the newest production by the Raven Players, starts off with great promise. Theater-goers walk to their seats past reproduction of 1930s-era Western movie posters, featuring such names as Bob Steele, Buck Jones, Tom Mix, even Ronald Reagan. The , perhaps overlarge for this inimate production, has at least the trappings a Western move matinee house.
Before the play begins, a short black-and-white trailer introduces two cow-pokes (one of them director Steven David Martin) who remind us to not talk during the performance, eat and drink with consideration for our neighbors, and turn off our cell phones – or else. It’s a funny and well-done little short, raising expectations – perhaps unfairly -- for what is to follow.
What follows is a new staging of an early 1980s play by Mark Medoff about an angst-ridden young lawyer from New York who goes West to find a noble cause to give his life meaning, and perhaps rediscover his childhood fantasy life as a Western movie hero.
The noble cause that Aaron Weiss (Devin McConnell) and his colleague and sometime lover Ava Jean “A.J.” Pollard (Sarah Kenney) find is an effort to return ranchland to the Apache, for whom it has been their traditional home for thousands of years. The ranchers are epitomized by William S. Hart Finlay (gleefully inhabited by Audie Foote), a classic Western villain -- part town booster, part hanging judge, part corrupt land-baron, part sadist.
Young Aaron is clearly no match for Finlay, all the more so when he falls for Finlay’s young lover Lisa Belmondo (Beth Woodruff, nailing that Texas accent one of her several charms), herself owner of a sizeable bit of property that’s implicated in Finlay’s grand plans. For some reason Lisa falls for Aaron, too, and the conflict of the situation sends Aaron back to his childhood fantasy companion and mentor, the Laredo Kid.
Tim Shippey plays the Kid with just the right recipe of bluster and innocence, ham and cheese, providing capable opposition to Foote’s villain. The Kid’s advice to Aaron is usually wrong, or at best irrelevant, based as it is on outmoded Western movie values – the guy is supposed to rescue the girl, when two men engage in a fight they say “Thok!” when they hit each other, and every life situation has its precedence in an old movie.
Most of the play is set on a simple stage, with sunset colors on red-rock landscape (and inflatable saguaro cactus). Several songs punctuate the proceedings, usually by the big-voiced Shippey in his singing cowboy mode. The lighting is appropriately restrained, except when it’s atmospheric, giving this small-town theatrical production its appropriate look and feel.
However there are some strange elements in the play that date it, not to the Western movies it’s modeled on, but to the early 1980s when it was written. Aaron Weiss grapples with his role as a male in a world of promiscuous women, which even includes an on-stage disrobing and striptease that’s a bit discomforting.
His constant whining about his weaknesses become as tiresome for his fellow characters as it does for the audience, and by the end of the first act his situation is pretty hopeless – so much so that he’s compelled (finally!) to draw upon his inner Western movie hero, the Majestic Kid.
Will Aaron Weiss defeat the evil William S. Hart Finlay? Will the Apache be returned their land – and turn it into a resort-cum-casino? Will A.J. stop stripping and accept Aaron’s right to choose? And will the Majestic Kid win the love of the perfect Western woman, the lithe liberal landowner (and gourmet-cook) Lisa?
You’ll have to wait for the second act to find out.
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