Woke “Shane”

The Guthrie Theater tries hard to ruin a great story.

Photo credit: Matthew Paulson via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

I was looking forward to the Guthrie Theater’s last performance of the season, a theatrical adaptation of the novel Shane. I read and studied Jack Schaefer’s classic 1949 Western as a seventh grader at St. Joseph’s Elementary School in West St. Paul and wondered how they would make it come alive on the stage. Unfortunately, the Guthrie’s high-quality acting and excellent stage production could not overcome the awkward, overwrought insertion of an “erasure” narrative by playwright Karen Zacarías.

The Guthrie’s banal land acknowledgement before the play foreshadowed Zacarías’ adaptation stating, “we gather on the traditional land of the Dakota People.” Land acknowledgements always raise two questions. First, how (and from whom) did the Dakota People obtain this land, and second, if the Guthrie claims it’s their land, aren’t they worried the Dakota will eventually demand its just return?

The play started technically strong with the curtain revealing a 20-by-40-foot painted map of Wyoming circa 1889. When actor Juan Arturo (who plays young Bobby Starrett and narrates the play) walks on stage behind the translucent map, the lighting gives him a ghost-like appearance. True to the novel, the titular character Shane makes his entrance by approaching the Starrett family homestead from a distance. When he dropped his saddle bags on the stage, I was disappointed dust didn’t fly — surely a western journey would demand such effect. But my disappointment turned to satisfaction as clouds of dust burst into the air as actor William DeMeritt alternately slapped his thighs before drawing a drink of water. He nailed the scene.

After that promising beginning, the play quickly veered from Schaefer’s original text. First, we learn through awkward dialogue that the Starrett family is Hispanic. Marian is originally from Mexico and Joe’s mother is Hispanic. Young Bobby becomes Roberto. The couple met in Arizona when Joe was working in the mines and Marian’s family fled there after their land in Mexico “became America.” A new character, Winona, is introduced, a Native American guide working for cattleman Luke Fletcher.

The final change from the original book portrays Shane as an African American cowboy, which, taken alone, would have gone unnoticed, especially given DeMeritt’s excellent performance.

The play then proceeds through the story of Shane, a gunfighter struggling to leave his past behind and be a better man. He becomes a hired hand for Joe Starrett, earning his trust as the two work side-by-side clearing the land. The scene holds the striking symbolism of accomplishment and overcoming challenges as the men finally remove the last stump in the middle of the yard. But Shane is reluctantly called back to his old life to protect the Starrett homestead from the greedy cattleman trying to take the land. Actor DeMeritt nails one of the biggest moments of the book — and play — when he dramatically emerges from the barn wearing the gunfighter “uniform” we haven’t seen since he stored it away at the beginning of the play.

Ignoring the politics, the performance met the high standards of a Guthrie production. For example, slow-motion choreography in the bar fight and the way Shane and Starrett chopped away at the stump were particularly impressive.

Unfortunately, it was hard to ignore the politics, making a simple and enduring tale distractingly awkward. While the story is told, it is interrupted several times to push the land-grab narrative — an addition completely absent from the novel that takes away from its transcendent message. At one point, Shane and Joe Starrett leave the stage to Marian, Winona, and young Bobby (Roberto) as the women discuss the shared experience of Mexicans and Native Americans who were forcibly displaced from their land by greedy and conquering Americans. Toward the end of the play, Joe Starrett loudly laments that all land is stolen and we stand on the blood of our forefathers.

Zacarías wrote the play to “test the tropes of the genre” and “deepen and diversify the story.” Director Blake Robinson praised Zacarías for bringing a “culturally authentic perspective to this version of Shane.” Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj said the play “invites us to interrogate the well-worn Western genre and work to distinguish fact from myth.” Interrogate in this case is a euphemism for rewriting history, applying a contemporary lens to events of the past.

Shane is a novel set at the time of great development and expansion of the United States of America. Settlers like the Starretts took considerable risks to venture west, stake their claims, and build this country. Zacarías’ portrayal of these settlers as conquerors and thieves with all land “stolen” is unfair and certainly not authentic.

When I read Robinson’s director notes in the program, I sensed even he thought Zacarías went a little too far in pushing this land-grab narrative writing, “Will we get it all right? Probably not — how is that even possible? But I stand in awe of Karen’s big heart.” In other words, ignore the liberties we took with the story to push our political agenda — her heart was in the right place.

The play ends with our newly imagined character Winona killing evil cattleman Luke Fletcher with a skillful throw of her knife and then declaring she was reclaiming 1,000 head of cattle that rightfully belonged to her people back to the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. Our heroine!

Ultimately, the good acting and quality production of the Guthrie Theater’s staging of Shane was almost ruined by their awkward and self-righteous insertion of a land-grab narrative that distracted from a great American story. It was a missed opportunity to illustrate the enduring strength undergirding the frontier spirit, the triumph of overcoming immense hardship, and a nation coming of age — faults and all. The Guthrie and its audience would be better served by letting these stories speak for themselves, not using them to settle political or historical scores.

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