The Guthrie is currently playing a stage version of the classic movie Western “Shane.” It has all the great qualities of the 1953 film, which starred Alan Ladd as a tormented gunman. This version is tragic and intimate, boasting superb performances and memorable staging.
The new version also knows there was a big problem with the original film. The problem came from the real, violent history of the West and the comforting tales Hollywood told to mythologize it.
So this “Shane” makes a number of changes to the story to address the problem. These changes aren’t entirely successful — the problem is probably too profound to completely fix. But the attempt to address it makes for fascinating theater.
“Shane” was co-commissioned by the Guthrie and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and was directed by Blake Robinson, artistic director of the Ohio theater. The show debuted in Cincinnati and then moved here, something called a “co-pro” in theatrical shorthand, meaning coproduction.
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This is an increasingly common process for creating new shows, allowing theaters to split the cost and giving the resulting show at least two venues; new plays often only get production at best.
“Shane” follows the structure of the original 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer and the later film, about a fitfully violent range war between a handful of homesteaders and a ranch boss in Wyoming Territory in 1889.
The title character is a taciturn but honorable man haunted by unspoken past deeds. Westerns liked this sort of character, men of violence who stood outside of society but whose brutality made society possible, and “Shane” was especially clever in its telling. Shane wanted to be better than his past and went to work for a homesteader family, where he found meaning and honor in working the land.
But sooner or later the story was going to require Shane to take up his guns again. “A man has to be what he is, Joey,” Shane says in the film. “Can't break the mold.”
The Guthrie’s “Shane” tells this story on a crooked stage, where a bent path leads to a warped shack, and where the play’s family lives. These are the Staretts: Father Joe (Ricardo Chavira), mother Marian (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and son Bobby (Juan Arturo). They are honest, honorable people, and they’ve been working a patch of soil for a half-decade hoping to make a better life for Bobby.
They are welcoming to a stranger, even when that stranger has the black hat and hidden pistols of a killer. This is Shane, played as a roiling contradiction by William DeMeritt. He is showy about being a good man — he has fastidious manners and is awkwardly gregarious.
But he’s also wary and frequently laconic, and given to unexpected flashes of terrifying rage. As written by playwright Karen Zacarías and performed by DeMeritt, he starts the story already on the path away from violence, and the play puts him right back on the path toward it.
There is a lot of art to the show. Characters are frequently introduced in slow motion, marching in an exaggeration of the distinctive bandy-legged walk of the cowboy, occasionally stopping to make a cowboy gesture, twirling guns or swallowing whiskey.
They sometimes stomp feet and clap hands, and even move furniture and stage properties doing a sort of Wild West do-si-do. Behind them, a soundtrack plays, the sort of slide guitar country blues that Ry Cooder used to put behind revisionist Westerns in the 70s. Various characters join the stage to warn Shane and the Staretts of coming violence, and, eventually, it comes.
And here’s the problem: This myth is a settler-colonial fantasy, one in which America was an inchoate, lawless land before Europeans settled it, bringing civilization with them.
The original telling of the story whitewashes the real history of the settling of the West, which was largely one of genocidal ethnic cleansing. So right at the start of Guthrie’s “Shane,” the problem emerges, as the show begins with a land acknowledgment: We are on Native land.
The show knows it, too, and addresses it, even if it cannot be resolved. Playwright Zacarías is a Mexican-born writer, and recasts the Staretts as a Mexican family; she also reimagines Shane as a Black man with a tragic backstory steeped in America’s foundational racism. Neither are settlers in the traditional sense — the Mexicans have Indigenous heritage, and Shane’s heritage is chattel slaves rather than colonists.
Zacarías also introduces a new character, a Native interpreter played by Shayna Jackson who unambiguously tells the Staretts that settlers like them are doing a better job of ethnic cleansing than the U.S. military.
The Staretts are given complete and complex backstories, and they affectionately speak to each other in untranslated Spanish. The family wrestles with their participation in the dispossession of the Native population, and Jackson’s character plays a key role in the play’s climax.
But ultimately, the story wants us to root for the Staretts, and it’s hard not to. They’re delightful in the play, and homesteading is presented as a genuine solution to the limited opportunities for Mexicans in America.
But this means that we’re rooting for the successful replacement of the Indigenous population, and the tension this creates cannot be resolved in the story being told. What are they to do? Give the land back to the original owners? That’s not “Shane,” and it didn’t happen in history either.
But if the problem can’t be solved, it can be staged, and “Shane” does so. It dismantles the myth of the West. The resulting play is messy, but engrossingly so. It wouldn’t do justice to history to mount a neat play about the American West.
This was always a story about violence; the Guthrie’s version makes it clear just how much violence actually occurred.
”Shane” plays through Aug. 27 at the Guthrie Theater.