Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Review by Rick Pender

Also see Scott's recent review of Indigo

William DeMeritt and Juan Arturo
Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Western movies were a big deal in the 1950s (not to mention being the inspiration for numerous TV series in the 1960s). Today not so much. But the classic Shane–a 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer that became a much admired movie directed by George Stevens in 1953–has lingered in many fans' memories for years. But upon closer examination, it's the "wild west" through a very 1950s filter. All the combatants in an 1889 feud between homesteaders and cattlemen were white, despite the fact that the Wyoming Territory had more diversity: indigenous people, to be sure, as well as people of color, including African and Hispanic Americans.

For the stage adaptation of Shane, receiving its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, playwright Karen Zacarías has diversified the narrative, creating a more meaningful re-creation of actual conflicts from the 19th century, and adding dimension and motivation to several central characters. Shane (William DeMeritt), the sullen, taciturn stranger, is a Black gunslinger trying to move on from a violent past that was often caused by racial prejudice. Homesteader Joe Starrett (Ricardo Chavira) and his wife Marian (Mikell Sapp) are Hispanic, a couple who have done their best to carve out new lives for themselves and their young son Bobby (Juan Arturo) by establishing a small farm, land made possible by the federal Homestead Act. She has added Winona (Shayna Jackson), a native American trying to help her people deal with the changing world. She is not altogether willingly connected with arrogant cattle owner Luke Fletcher (Bill McCallum), who is insistent on buying the Starretts' spread.

Dressed in black and with a sinister demeanor, Shane drifts into the Starretts' lives, an object of fascination to Bobby. The adults' open-hearted warmth breaks through his hardened, aloof shell, and he becomes a farmhand, shedding his black attire for a flannel shirt and dungarees. But Fletcher's gang of roughnecks make life difficult, and threats of violence constantly have the family living in fear. They learn that Winona is not entirely pleased to be associated with Fletcher. She gives the family some strong wisdom, and Shane becomes their protector. If you know the movie–and even if you don't–it's no surprise that this leads to an eventual, predictable showdown, with a positive ending.

Zacarías has added further meaning to her adaptation by having the story told through the filter of Bobby's perceptions. Arturo initially portrays him as an adult recalling the events from his childhood; then, slipping in and out of a childish demeanor, he becomes the child, questioning Shane to learn more about the man's dark past and spying on adult conversations. Arturo enlivens Bobby's innocent curiosity in a most convincing way, and we are frequently reminded of his hero worship of Shane and of his boyish desires, taking target practice with a slingshot and even turning an inept cartwheel.

The action plays out on a largely barren stage designed by Lex Liang, surrounded by a frame of wooden planking reminding us that we're watching a tale from Bobby's memory, stripped down to its bare essence. A few sloped ramps descend from a high, solid wall with one doorway and swinging double barroom panels. In some scenes, windows are projected on this wall (thanks to Pablo Santiago's lighting designs), but there's never an attempt to realistically render the expanse of the wilderness. The opening scrim curtain features an antique map of the Wyoming Territory.

Adult Bobby enters initially as the scrim disappears and begins to tell the story. He dusts off his pants and shirtsleeves, movement that evolves into a rhythmic clap and stomp, soon picked up by other performers entering the action. Director Blake Robison's cast repeats this sound and motion, imaginatively conceived by movement director Vanessa Severo, to mark passages from scene to scene. Chairs and tables move on and off the stage with further rhythmic gestures and sonic action, giving the story a kind of ritualistic quality. When Shane and Joe are embroiled in a furious fist fight with Fletcher's henchmen, they initially stand in pools of light, miming delivering blows while still distant from one another. As the violence accelerates, actual physical encounters accelerate. But this combat (Rick Sordelet and his son, Christian Kelly-Sordelet, are the fight directors) sustains further the ritualistic nature of the production.

Zacarías's script thoughtfully raises numerous contemporary issues about racial prejudice and injustice that were not part of Schaefer's novel or Stevens's film, but these elements are smartly woven and make complete, fuller sense for the story. Ultimately, Shane is a tale about a young boy learning what it takes to be a man: Sometimes it's about walking away, and sometimes it's about standing up against evil. Important lessons in today's divided, complicated world.

After playing here through late June, Shane moves to Minneapolis where it will be presented in July and August by the Guthrie Theater, the production's co-producer.

Shane, produced by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Guthrie Theater, runs through June 25, 2023, at Moe and Jack's Place, The Rouse Theatre, 962 Mt. Adams Circle in Eden Park OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-421-3888.