Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch
Written by Shubert Fendrich

Directed by Kathy Norton

Reviewed by Cristina Martin

Entire contents copyright © 2012 Cristina Martin. All rights reserved.

Tom Gudding, Charley Swarens and Elizabeth Whittinghill in
Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch. Photo courtesy of Hayswood Theatre.
Corydon, Indiana’s Hayswood Theatre is a gem. In a picturesque town mighty proud of its culture and history, Hayswood’s comfortable 70-seat auditorium hosts audiences year-round; its 2011-2012 season lineup consists of no less than six full-scale productions in addition to a summer children’s workshop. This would be impressive in itself, but the most inspiring aspect of Hayswood is that it’s community theatre in the truest and finest sense of the term.

Kathy Norton, Director of the current production of Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch, readily admits that the show is not Hamlet or Death of a Salesman– it’s a light Western, set sometime in the early 1900s, and Norton’s goal is to give the audience a “rip-roaring good time.” Author Shubert Fendrich embraced the melodrama genre proudly, penning dozens of plays before his death in 1989. Along the way, he founded Pioneer Drama Service, now one of largest dramatic publishing and licensing companies around, with the specific goal of making his work available to community theatres and to all who wish to perform. Other credits include Give My Regards to Broadway (book) as well as an adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance – familiar material designed to entertain and to uplift.

Blazing Guns takes place in the lobby of the Roaring Gulch Hotel. In short order, we meet earnest hotel clerk Barney Black (Chris Wells), plotting proprietress Widow Black (Debbie Smith), and cute-as-a-button Sheriff Willie Lovelace (Elizabeth Tuell Whittinghill). Add resident actress Martha Muldoon (Patty McClure) and the travelling troupe of gentlemanly Colonel Crabtree (Charles Swarens) with his adorable showgirls Flora (Sue McMonigle) and Dora (Shelly Knear), and you’ve got quite a colorful bunch.  And of course, where would a good Western be without the Villain? Enter Snipe Vermin – what a name! – (Tom Gudding), with his guitar-playing sidekick Bill Filbert (Bob Jackson). Hot on Snipe’s heels is Pinkerton detective Harry Heartstone, who shows up at the Roaring Gulch Hotel, too. And ain’t it curious: I reckon there’s quite an uncanny resemblance there, Pardner, between Snipe and Harry…

We’re treated to love interests, gunfights, greedy intrigue, a bank robbery, a spell of amnesia, and the reunion of long-separated family and friends. And thank heavens – and I don’t think I’m giving too much away here – everything turns out a-ok in the end.

Some scenes were slow on opening night, but others brought down the house. One of my favorites consisted of actress Martha Muldoon doing a recitation of “My Loooove is Like a Red Red Rose,” by “Bobby Burns,” as she put it. Patty McClure’s looks and gestures were priceless. Her Martha is every bit the Grande dame of the acting world who manages nonetheless to retain a very appealing sweetness. Sheriff Willie, too, is played appealingly by Elizabeth Tuell Whittinghill. Many, if not all, the actors break the fourth wall in asides to the audience, but Willie’s establish an especially good rapport as she shares her thoughts. She’s determined to do what’s right, even if it means self-sacrifice, and it’s gratifying to see it all work out in her favor. 

Barney Black, likewise, comes out on top, and we’re happy to see him get what’s rightly his. Chris Wells plays him with energy and animation, a good anchor behind the front desk of the hotel and a great foil for his boss (and stepmother), Widow Black. Debbie Smith does a wickedly fine job as the evil widow, whose smoldering looks and signature cackle thrill the audience. 

Snipe is also wonderfully menacing from the moment we meet him. With his hat pulled low over his eyes, his voice gravelly, and his face set in a scowl, Tom Gudding plays an excellent Bad Guy – and a first-rate Good Guy, too, for he plays Sherlock Holmes-esque Harry Heartstone as well. To flip back and forth from one character to another in successive scenes can be very challenging for an actor, but Gudding does it seamlessly and transforms himself from one character to the other thoroughly and believably.

Snipe rides into town with Bill Filbert, but it soon becomes clear that Bill is actually a good soul who got mixed up with the wrong kind. Bob Jackson plays a funny and likable Bill who promptly decides to give up his life of crime when he catches the eye of showgirls Flora and Dora. Sweet and wholesome flirts with irrepressible giggles, the audience found them irresistible, too. Charles Swarens is stately and benevolent as their manager, the Colonel, who is more than happy to see their sojourn in Roaring Gulch result in the addition of a few more players to his troupe.

Kathy Norton has designed a lovely set, constructed and decorated cleverly by many of the cast and their family members. She incorporates some great directorial touches, too, particularly ones having to do with the use of the stairs leading up to the hotel’s rooms and of the glimpse of hallway we see on the second floor. Martha Muldoon uses the stairs for her memorable recitation, but so does Widow Black, slinking around corners and laughing maniacally. The Colonel and his girls are especially funny at one point as they set off to find their rooms, turn down one corridor, and then go traipsing along the hallway in the opposite direction, swinging their suitcases. 

The design and execution of the lighting is very effective, especially in the actors’ aforementioned asides, and the staging of the gunfights very adept.  I’ll leave it to you to wonder how Snipe and Harry face off if they’re both played by the same actor…

The actors’ costumes strike just the right note, evoking the era without being overdone, and the ladies’ vintage jewelry is lovely. Whether or not a Pinkerton detective would wear a Sherlock Holmes cape in the Wild West is questionable (mightn’t he be a little overdressed for the weather?), but its inclusion is hilarious!

It’s not easy to faint believably (or even melodramatically) on stage, but both Harry and Widow Black do it with artful comedy. Sitting in one of the last two rows, however, it was impossible to see them once they had sunk to the floor, and a bit of the comedy was lost. Indeed, any action that takes place downstage and low to the ground is probably lost on all but maybe the front third of the audience. Fortunately, there are only a few brief moments staged like this, but it’s a shame for anyone to miss any of the action at all.

It must be mentioned that the play itself is preceded by an extraordinary performance by The Roaring Gulch Band, consisting of Music Director John Douglass (who is presumably also the fiddler, though the program doesn’t say so), Lee Cable on guitar and vocals, Marty Purdy on mandolin and vocals, and John Driver on banjo and vocals. Norton herself sings, too. The band plays seven songs in succession, in a heartfelt and beautiful cowboy ballad/Bluegrass hybrid style. I wish it had been announced that we’d first hear the concert in its entirety and then the play would begin. Though there were songs listed in the program, I expected to hear maybe just one or two before the curtain opened and the rest in the course of the play. Curiosity as to just when the play would start kept me from appreciating the music to the fullest. But having Flora and Dora lead the audience in singing along to cowboy classics like “Home on the Range” was fun, and the musicians were talented. Perhaps another time to include a portion of this musical entertainment might be at intermission, when Flora and Dora are already visiting and interacting with the audience.

One last constructive suggestion, offered in the kindest possible spirit: please proofread.  And then proofread again, and have several people do it. I was dismayed to see “gulch” spelled incorrectly on the programs and publicity posters, and performers’ names spelled variously on the theatre’s website and in the program (e.g., John Douglas vs. Douglass; Shelley vs. Shelly Knear). And is there really a place called Loredo, or was the band actually singing about the streets of Laredo? With the incredible attention to detail that I know from experience goes into a show’s production, I’m amazed at how often our meticulousness drops off when it comes to printed materials. And yet these are the very tools meant to draw the public in, a theatre’s golden opportunity to make a crucial first impression. May we all strive to make this first impression as carefully orchestrated and as polished as the shows we promise.  

In all, I’m incredibly heartened whenever I visit Hayswood because of the genuine enthusiasm for and support of theatre that I sense there. Even a stranger is enfolded into this community of people who come together around the age-old art form, bringing their talents and efforts and resources to bear for the sheer creative delight of it all.

One of the most heartwarming moments I experienced on opening night of Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch occurred when the Colonel stepped on stage for the first time. The little girl behind me nearly fell out of her seat, overcome with excitement, exclaiming, “It’s Grandpa!! Look – Grandpa!!!” I had to smile. How wonderful that she could watch and root for her Grandpa on stage, and what a great example he was providing of involvement in the Arts. Mr. Swarens happens to be a seminal member of Hayswood Theatre, with many acting and directing credits to his name. Would that we’d all be as enthusiastic, proud and supportive of our fellow members of the theatre family as is his granddaughter.

Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch

May 11-27, 2012

Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.

Sundays at 2 p.m.

Hayswood Theatre

115 S. Capitol Ave.

Corydon, IN 47112

(812) 738-2138