nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 10, 2005
The second word of this play's title is the operative one—Missouri Legend, by Elizabeth Beall Ginty, is a charmer of a tall tale about outlaw Jesse James and his last stand in the Ozarks and St. Joe in 1882. It's a delightful bit of Americana, all about conniving bankers cheating innocent widows out of their land and big-hearted bank robbers saving the day with ingenuity and panache. It's a story that folks love to watch and love to believe: just try and get out of Missouri Legend without a soft spot for its hero, a man who in real life was a killer, thief, and devout son of the Confederacy.
But real life has little to do with the fanciful fairy tale that Ginty has set before us, and that's just fine. It begins in the parlor of Thomas Howard, the wealthy and upright Missouri citizen (involved, fuzzily, in the "grain trade") who is actually notorious bandit Jesse James. Jesse's reserves are a little low, and his pride is a touch wounded by the current bounty on his head—a meager thousand dollars. So he's meeting with his brother Frank and his colleagues Jim Cummins and Charlie Johnson to plan a robbery—they're going to heist stockpiles of gold from a train as it rolls through the nearby Ozark Mountains.
Ginty quickly reveals, with good-natured humor, the contradictions of Jesse's life. On the one hand, he's tough, rough, and ready: willing, for example, to pretend to aim his pistols at his adoring pal Billy Gashade as a practical joke. On the other, he's a devout Baptist who won't have playing cards in his home, and he yearns for respectability so much that he's just taken out a loan from a local bank, leaving a promissory note to pay the money back in two weeks time—and he means to do just that. Jesse's wife, Zerelda (called Zee by just about everybody) echoes his desire for middle class stability, threatening to leave him whenever it looks like he's about to revert to his old ways as an outlaw.
But we know that loyal Zee will never leave her man, any more than Jesse will ever give up the romance and honor of the caper. On his way to rendezvousing with his colleagues, Jesse stops at an Ozark farmhouse for some refreshment. Here he meets the Widder Weeks, a scrappy woman, old before her time, who is initially suspicious of this stranger but warms up to him when he reveals his Baptist faith and his affinity for her father, whom he knew long ago. The Widder—think a younger version of Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies—serves up some vittles and draws some sweet water from the well, and tells Jesse (never knowing who he really is, of course) the terrible story of how her no-'count husband mortgaged everything he owned and then died, leaving her in debt to the sinister bank. The note is due today, and the man from the bank is coming around for the $200 plus interest and if he doesn't get it, she will lose everything. (Her two surviving children—out of nine—have already been taken away from her by her equally dastardly in-laws.)
Well, darn it all if Jesse doesn't take pity on Widder Weeks, and quickly devises a plot to pay off her farm free and clear and steal back the money from the bank to boot. Leaving her with the cash and a "recipe" that she must get the bank representative to sign, he heads off to the train robbery, and then returns to the bank where he took out his loan, which naturally is the same one that's trying to cheat the Widder. Improbable, entertaining shenanigans ensue.
The third act plays out the end of Jesse's life as folk tragedy, as he is betrayed by a friend who is revealed to be both turncoat and coward. Truest to the record, it's just as lively and watchable as everything that comes before. As a finale, Jesse's buddy Billy Gashade leads the company in singing a song he wrote, "The Ballade of Jesse James." We are encouraged to join in (the words are in the program).
This can be, I think, a more rollicking, light-hearted show than Yvonne Conybeare's staging suggests: this production feels more like an apologia for Jesse James than the homespun celebration that I think Ginty was going for. That said, this Missouri Legend is a great deal of fun, especially in the scene at the bank, where Mike Durkin brings to life every lowdown 19th century melodrama villain ever conceived in his oily performance as greedy capitalist Hosea Hickey, with fellow cast members Lance Olds (as the nervous bank teller George), Marc Donovan (as a slow-witted deputy named Sam), and Teresa Kelsey (as another of the bank's victims, a mountain gal named Liza who fumes bitterly over the 15% interest that Hickey wants to charge her) all rising to the occasion as well.
As Jesse, Alex Roe, brooding and bearded, is commanding and complicated—he shows us the feisty crook of legend as well as the pious, longing-to-be-domesticated family man. Putnam Smith, who plays the worshipful Billy Gashade, is at his best on his banjo, leading the company in rousing singing of period folk and gospel tunes at suitable moments between and during the play's several scenes.
Missouri Legend conjures not only a unique life story but a whole kind of American myth, our own version of Robin Hood—the noble outlaw who lives by a chivalrous code equal to any Arthurian knight's, carving out the frontier with courage, pride, firearms, and all-American spunk. I am delighted to have made this play's acquaintance—it's a keeper, a lost treasure that the Metropolitan Playhouse deserves praise for unearthing.