Part Robin Hood, part terrorist and entirely a product of his times Jesse James receives a respectful tribute from the Midnight Company in a revival of The Ballad of Jesse James. Written and directed by Joe Hanrahan and originally staged in 1999, this version of the 90-minute production plays in a vast white photography studio. While appropriate to the presentational style of the show, the backdrop eerily displaces the actors from any specific time or location. The show's style brings back memories of the recently departed Historyonics Theatre, which staged similar history lessons combined with music the difference here is that Hanrahan has created dialogue between the characters that, while true to the spirit of their history, may not have actually happened.
Hanrahan frames the production with a meeting of the elderly Frank James and Cole Younger, whose discussion of the terrible turn of events at a bank holdup in Minnesota leads into a review of their earlier days. Following attacks on their families by abolitionists and Union soldiers, the Jameses and Youngers joined the guerrilla forces of Quantrille, swearing an oath of "no mercy" and creating their own version of justice in Missouri during the Civil War. When the war's end left them destitute, Jesse forged creative solutions: relieving banks of "carpetbagger" money and hurting the "iron horse" that was slicing across Missouri.
Hanrahan wisely makes the characters interesting but not entirely sympathetic he doesn't shy from their killing ways, but the historical context softens the impact of the murders. The overtly theatrical presentation interspersed narration, songs, short scenes and monologues performs a similar function. Unfortunately the litany of dates slows the action and seems too overtly pedagogical does it matter that much whether a particular robbery took place in June 1878 or March 1879?
When not overwhelmed with a recitation of historical facts, the actors create intriguing characters. Hanrahan imbues Frank with stubborn loyalty and a world-weary fatigue. David Wassilak's blood-curdling "rebel yell" and sharp features create a Jesse James worthy of legend but quite human. His monologue about Union soldiers attacking his family's farm is a quiet triumph of brooding anger. Larry Dell excels in many parts as the older Cole Younger, bitter and broken from years in prison; as the past-tense Cole; as a newspaper editor who cast the James brothers as heroes. He also adds excellent musical commentary, playing guitar and singing unrepentant Rebel songs with gritty boldness.
The central conflict in The Ballad of Jesse James is an episode in which the James brothers abandon the wounded Younger brothers, who are eventually captured and sent to jail. Hanrahan presents the action Rashomon-like, providing three variations and allowing the "truth" to hover somewhere between. This artful concept would be more successful if the differences between the three scenes were more significant.
A fascinating convergence of theater, history and reality will take place in June, when The Ballad of Jesse James is performed at the James Farm in Kearney at the Friends of the James Farm Annual Reunion, Black-Powder Shoot and Writer's Conference. The Bible-quoting Jesse, the Shakespeare-quoting Frank and the stoic Cole will bring a bloody chapter of Missouri history to life on the porch of the James family home. It's hard to imagine a better way to merge past and present.