Stage Door Review 2023


Sunday, June 25, 2023


by Norm Foster, directed by Jim Mezon

Norm Foster Theatre Festival, Century Barn, Ball’s Falls

June 23-July 2, 2023;

Rose Theatre, Brampton

July 6-9, 2023

Keets: “No man really knows about other human beings”

You may think you know what a Norm Foster play is like, but seeing his 2003 play Outlaw will make you realize that Foster’s range is much broader than you may have imagined. In previous plays seen at the Foster Festival, like Lunenberg in 2017 and Renovations for Six in 2018 comedy dominates the mystery at their centre, but in Outlaw mystery quite definitely dominates the comedy. Foster has proved innumerable times that he can hold an audience rapt with his quick-witted comedy. In Outlaw he proves he can do just the same with the twists and turns in a mystery. It a fascinating play given an ideal cast, smart direction and a fantastic site-specific production.

The action of most of Foster’s plays is set at the time of their writing. But, as in Screwball Comedy in 2017, he has made excursions into other periods. Outlaw is set outside Baxter Springs, Kansas, in 1871, only ten years after Kansas had joined the United States. The brother of the local cattle baron Roland Keets has been shot and has died in the arms of his brother. Keets has sent men to find the killer who fled the scene. After a prologue consisting of a short introductory monologue by each character, the action begins when one of men sent by Keets, his cattle wrangler Will Vanhorne, comes across a young man, Bob Hicks, who was seen riding out of town just after the murder.

Vanhorne rides Hicks out to a rock known as the Hanging Stone, ties Hicks’s hands and makes him stand on the rock. Keets wanted the guilty party all ready for hanging so he wouldn’t have to wait once he reached the stone. Keets, however, won’t be there for an hour, and during this time Hicks asks favours of Vanhorne and the two begin to converse, much against Vanhorne’s desire. Neither Hicks nor Vanhorne is an inherently comic character. Hicks is a young man who can’t believe he is going to die for a crime he adamantly states he didn’t commit. Vanhorne is an archetypic taciturn cowboy in the mold of Randolph Scott who is just doing a job he was paid to do and doesn’t want to think any more about it. The comedy is in the clash of the two – one a Canadian who doesn’t carry a gun and doesn’t believe in them and who has a wife a child back home, the other a gunslinging loner who can’t imagine life without one.

Nevertheless, the more Vanhorne hears from Hicks, a man who in the most uncowboylike fashion imaginable, cries in his distress, the more Vanhorne realizes that the case for Hicks as the murderer is not as solid as he first thought. Once the sheriff Dupuis Tarwater arrives on the scene, Vanhorne notes discrepancies between what Tarwater says and the available facts. By the end of Act 1, the audience should have formulated various theories about who murdered Keets’s brother, but in a manner quite unlike an ordinary comedy, should also worry that the sympathetic Canadian Bob Hicks might actually get hanged.

One of the great virtues of the direction of Jim Mezon, veteran of 33 seasons at the Shaw Festival, is that he doesn’t force the play to be comic when it isn’t. He ensures that tension builds throughout the first act and continues to build throughout the second after Keets finally arrives. Tarwater is the only character who is overtly comic, but Keets seems to have deliberately hired a dimwitted sheriff so that he, Keets, would retain the ultimate power on his land. There is comedy in the clash of manners and beliefs between Hicks and the unfriendly Americans around him, but Mezon allows a sense of real danger to grow against which the humour acts as comic relief.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast than the one the Foster Festival has assembled. Bob Hicks is one of the meatiest roles Jesse Dwyre has ever had and it is a pleasure to see how fully he inhabits it. Dwyre well conveys the extraordinarily complex mixture of Hicks’s feelings from outrage and confusion to anxiety, calmness, nostalgia, hope and despair as Hicks tries everything he can think of to negotiate his freedom from his captors. It’s no surprise that, faced with an unjust death and the fact of never seeing his home or family again, Hicks should break down in deep sobbing. Vanhorne and Tarwater may make fun of Hicks for crying, but we do not.

Matthew Olver makes Will Vanhorne one of the most fascinating characters I’ve seen in a Foster play. From beginning to end Olver plays Vanhorne as stoic and impassive, springing to action only when Hicks makes a sudden move to escape. Vanhorne comes off as a nonbeliever not just in God but in anything. From his opening monologue it seems Vanhorne arrived at his present views through repeated disappointment. He says, “It seemed to me that what I already had, might be as good as it was gonna get. That wasn’t a satisfyin’ fact, but it was a fact nonetheless”.

What Olver does that is so remarkable is to present Vanhorne with a completely neutral to disdainful façade and yet convey that the man is full of energy and in particular that he is working on the question of whether Hicks really is the culprit. As we come to see a ruthless pursuit of logic is not inconsistent with an apparent lack of emotion. In fact, the two should go together. Olver’s ability to make us feel Vanhorne is constantly reviewing the situation with Hicks in his mind leads us to think that Vanhorne may claim to believe in nothing except one thing and that is justice.

Peter Krantz, a veteran of 28 seasons with the Shaw Festival, gives us a richly comic portrait of Sheriff Dupuis Tarwater, who is clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Krantz shows that Tarwater combines received prejudice with a distinct lack of mental agility. Yet, Krantz also communicates an intriguing mix of over-confidence with nervousness in Tarwater which results in Tarwater’s comic inability to lie convincingly.

George Masswohl, most recently the mayor of Gander in the musical Come From Away, shows us the cattle baron Roland Keets in a completely different light than we had expected. From what Tarwater and Vanhorne have said in Act 1, we expected a blustering, inflexible revenge-seeker. What we see instead once Keets turns up in Act 2 is a civil, highly educated man to loves quoting great writers. He quotes Thoreau in his opening monologue: “The frontiers are not east or west, north or south, but wherever a man fronts a fact”. He (anachronistically) quotes John Steinbeck later when he observes, “No man really knows about other human beings”. These remarks show an openness of mind so that while Keets still wants Hicks to hang, he also wants him to understand why.

In Act 2 Foster leads us through many bends and swivels toward a conclusion that will have you hanging on every word the characters say. Outlaw may be a comedy, but it is exciting to see how far Foster is willing to push the bounds of the form.

Adding to the pleasure of seeing Outaw is the decision by Artistic Director Emily Oriold to stage the play in a barn to capture in the site some of the atmosphere of the Old West. At the last minute, the barn the Festival had intended to use became unavailable but luckily the Festival was able to act nimbly and switch venues to the Century Barn in Ball’s Falls Conservation Area in Twenty Valley, now part of the village of Jordan. Now a well-preserved ghost town, merely entering Ball’s Falls with its heritage church and houses of founders John and George Ball, already makes one feel one is stepping back in time. The large, handsome barn itself, dating from 1882 (only 11 years after the setting of the play) is a high, airy space well suited to a play where the action takes place outdoors at night. Sandra Marcroft has designed soft lighting that creates just the right ambience.

I left the show convinced that Outlaw is one of Foster’s best plays, atypical perhaps, but immensely satisfying. And it receives one of the most solid, nuanced productions of any of the Foster Festival’s offerings. Theatre fans should make a point of seeing this show in the Century Barn since the Ball’s Falls Conservation Area is such a charming bonus.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Matthew Olver as Will Vanhorne, Peter Krantz as Dupuis Tarwater, Jesse Dwyre as Bob Hicks and George Masswohl as Roland Keets; Jesse Dwyre as Bob Hicks and George Masswohl as Roland Keets; Matthew Olver as Will Vanhorne. © 2023 Norm Foster Theatre Festival.

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