Old Westerns and the New West of Meriwether Lewis

by RoxyRegionalTheatre on April 7, 2011

Dr. Ted Jones has appeared in over thirty Roxy productions, including CATS (Old Deuteronomy), POE UNEARTHED, for which he played his Scottish harp, Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT (Amiens) and, most recently the harper in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.  This spring, Dr. Jones returns to the Roxy stage for HAMLET and BEA(U)TIFUL IN THE EXTREME.

When I grew up in the early years of television, westerns were all the rage.  Does anyone remember, Gene Autrey, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Old Ranger on “Death Valley Days?”  Okay, probably not.  But for us first-generation TV viewers, westerns inspired our creativity.  We played cowboys and Indians almost every day.  The problem was deciding who would play what.  Everyone wanted to be a cowboy.  Cowboys always won, and that’s the way it was–as black and white in our minds as it was on the 13-inch TV console sitting in our living room.  Settlers were good, god-fearin’, hard working folk who brought values to the untamed west.  Indians were ruthless savages who attacked with no reason or provocation.  In our “play,” no one even considered it might be the Indians who were being attacked.

I’ve had some time to think back about playing cowboys and Indians while we’ve rehearsed BEA(U)TIFUL IN THE EXTREME at the Roxy.  Unlike the naive black-and-white images of my childhood, playwright Leon Martell portrays Meriwether Lewis’ experiences in richly-textured shades of gray with no easy right or wrong interpretation.  As Lewis tries to fulfill Thomas Jefferson’s vision of western expansion, he faces huge physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual challenges.  And through his experiences, we see civilization as ultimately more dangerous than the obstacles he overcame and more savage than tribes he met.

Lewis’ journey takes many turns, and there are some surprises along the way that keep the viewers engaged visually as well as emotionally.  For adventure, there is white-water rafting, a mountain-climbing sequence, and, of course, an attack by Indians.  The cast of ten takes on a variety of roles, some unexpected, due to the number of characters that appear.

Most significant to the story, however, are the personal interactions Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea, and other historical figures share as the play unfolds.  As they become more than mere names in a history book, the characters in BEA(U)TIFUL IN THE EXTREME remind us that life is full, complex, adventurous, and ultimately dependent upon their relationships.  We see aspects of ourselves in Lewis; and, as in all good theatre, we come away with an enhanced understanding of life we would not have had otherwise.

So, rest in peace, Meriwether.  Unlike old westerns, life is most clearly and honestly seen in shades of gray.

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