In Outlaw, Canada’s most prolific and entertaining playwright has selected 1871 Kansas as the backdrop for this lively dissertation on the Canadian psyche. The result, playing in a variety of venues in Southwestern Ontario for the foreseeable future, is an intriguing mix of artistic savvy and workshop-ready scenes that should soon coalesce into a solid addition to the repertoire.
Self-described as “part comedy, part drama,” it’s the failure to be predominantly one or the other that prevents the current version from capturing and holding the audience between the bookend mini-soliloquies that frame the two acts.
Manitoban homesteader Bob Hicks (convincingly played by Darren Keay), following a three-day bender to celebrate the conclusion of a cattle drive, finds himself in the wrong stable at the wrong time and is accused of shooting dead the wayward brother of Roland Keets (Peter Evans looking the role to a tee, but occasionally slipping off the script’s trail). Hicks is easily tracked down at his campfire by Keets’ right-hand hand Will Vanhorne (Canadian newcomer Paul Wilson, whose southern drawl and quiet understatement are a most welcome addition) and is prepared to swing—no evidence required—on “Hangin’ Rock” because “justice don’t care where it gets done.”
Enter the lecherous, easily-bribed Sheriff Dupuis Tarwater (unevenly portrayed by Jeff Culbert). His character, ranging from sponsorship-scandal worthy slime to an under-developed dependency on his offstage mother, is the butt of the inevitable size jokes (“small offering”), but falls just short of being a credible villain.
Veteran director Christopher McHarge has infused his obvious love of the west throughout the proceedings. His vision was ably assisted by Stewart Simpson’s spot-on set design, which only lacked the smell of the nearby horses and jingle of the surprisingly absent spurs to add extra verisimilitude. Douglas Ledingham’s lighting plan was a model of unobtrusive support. Unfortunately, the scenes too-often reflected the stasis of their surroundings, remaining largely stagnant, favouring stand-and-deliver over action.
The script might benefit from a few alterations. Its inciting incident (the murder has to be reported) is told rather than shown; likewise, all of the relationships of the four men to their significant others are heard but never seen: Hicks’ devotion to his wife and six-year-old daughter (no letter close to his heart?); the randy peacekeeper’s global appetite for anything that moves in the local whore house (just what does he carry in his saddle bags?); Keets’ use of fine literature for mistress bait; the loner Vanhorne (hilariously ending up as an ambassador to Canada) attraction to his, er, mare?
Still, the notions of gun control, slavery/immigration, corruption and lies make so much of this piece resonate with our society today, that this show is highly recommended to anyone who revels in the interconnection of the Great White North and its shoot-first-ask-questions-later neighbour (think Bowling for Columbine with chaps). With a few refinements Outlaw could well become the definitive representation of what we love most about being Canadian. Perhaps, too, Hicks’ uncooperative match might finally burst into flame, giving further illumination rather than unintended metaphor to the challenges of life. JWR