MAN OF THE WEST
 
Niagara Pulse Magazine
 
April 16, 2004
 
(BY JOANNA MANNING)
 
REVIEW --
 

Norm Foster can now ride off into the sunset, his well–earned spurs jingling. His newest play Outlaw, fresh from its premiere production in Orangeville, is a real winner and just opened at Theatre in Port. Outlaw is a darn good story with interesting, quirky characters who demonstrate tension and humour that will have audiences on the edge of their seats. Westerns are a genre long admired by the likes of movie makers and novelists, but rarely do they make it to the theatre. Luckily, Foster has long been a fan of Westerns, last year penning his nostalgic homage to High Noon, Shane and The Magnificent Seven. Viewers don’t have to be theatre or even Western aficionados to enjoy Outlaw—as with all of Foster’s plays, the story is about human relationships.

Outlaw is an all–male cast; only once before, in The Foursome, a tale about golfing buddies, has Foster gone this route. Without the sexual tension, a different dynamic is created between the characters in that four very different men face a power struggle with little room for compromise or understanding.

As Outlaw goes, in 1871 the Farmer’s Almanac has predicted a harsh winter. Bob Hicks, a naïve young Canadian who doesn’t believe in having a gun, leaves his wife and young daughter on their small Manitoba farm and travels to Kansas to drive cattle, earning money for their survival. On his way home he’s accused of murder. Darren Keay, who created Hicks for the premiere, brings an earnest bewilderment to the role. Hicks’ captor, the loner misfit Will Vanhorne, tries to stay aloof as he waits for the arrival of his employer, Roland Keets. Keets is a cattle baron whose no–good brother was the victim. Vanhorne slowly allows himself to establish contact with Hicks, revealing his arid philosophy of life. Newcomer Paul Wilson maintains just the right detachment in this role until, near the climax, his conscience and innate sense of morality smacks him out of collusion and his humanity is revealed. Comedy and selfish evil are combined in the character of Dupuis Tarwater, the sheriff appointed by Keets. Devoid of any human compassion, Tarwater cannot wait to moisten the moss under Hicks’ feet as he stands trembling on the hanging rock. Jeff Culbert is believably rotten in this role, taking controlled advantage of all comic moments and expressions. As the literature–quoting cattleman whose brother was the victim of the shooting, Peter Evans brings a solemn weight to the part of Keets.

While we are never in doubt of Hicks’ innocence, the audience is frequently worried of his fate while it balances precariously on the personal whims and fears of the other characters. In Outlaw, Foster deliberately uses clichéd writing to further reinforce stereotypes of common cowboy movies and mentalities. He constantly builds up the tension only to release it like a still breath, adding a shot of dark–hued humour and comedy. The frozen, exaggerated movie–style stand–off is one of Outlaw’s funniest moments, as is a device taken from the big–screen of yester year, each character bidding farewell in a spotlit cameo. Chris McHarge, friend and long–time Foster collaborator, comes straight from Orangeville to direct again. McHarge has a strong sense of timing and pace, using the small triangular stage with amazing deftness to create a feeling of open spaces while maintaining both the physical and emotional confinement.