"Western" brings war realities to life, and life to moral questions.


"American Western" features, right to left, David Shelton as the ghost of John Cody Jones, Sara Morsey as Mags and Ted Stephens III as Lt. Daniel Boone.

OCTAVIAN CANTILLI / Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 1:24 a.m.

Facts

"American Western"

  • WHAT: Premiere of play written by University of Florida alumnus Neal Utterback and featuring final performance of the theater department's David Shelton.
  • WHERE: Constans Theatre, in the McGuire Theatre & Dance Pavilion, UF Campus.
  • WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and Tuesday through Feb. 10; 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 11.
  • TICKETS: $13, $9 for UF students, faculty, staff and senior citizens (392-1653).

It's a story about love, betrayal, guilt, secrets and mystery, and it will come alive Friday - its world premiere performance - at UF's Constans Theatre.
"American Western," written by UF alumnus Neal Utterback, sends complex characters on a search for truth in a reflection of the first decade of the 21st century. The play uses a Western motif with contemporary issues of war and politics, all the while keeping the audience laughing.
It opens with Lt. Daniel Boone of the U.S. Army traveling to Indiana to bury one of his soldiers, Sergeant Patrick Flynn, who has died in the war.
The inciting incident in the play is the funeral, where secrets and unexpected events unfold. Someone even outs Flynn at his own funeral, says Kevin Marshall, the director of UF's School of Theatre and Dance who directed "American Western."
"It's one of those rare scripts; I read a lot of new scripts, and quite frankly, 10 pages in you lose interest," Marshall says. "This one was just incredibly exciting because the plot kept you enthralled throughout. The characters are absolutely complex, wonderful, twisted people. It deals with very serious subjects, but the playwright infuses the script with humor. It deals with so many pertinent issues in a highly theatrical, dramatic, comical way that it really lends itself to performance on stage."
While the play does raise questions of war and politics, Utterback does little in the way providing direct answers, Marshall says.
"This is part of what's wonderful about theater," he says. "I find it most stimulating when you go to a play and go home and have conversations in the car about what we just saw, the interpretation of it. This play does that with a very interesting, complex, multi-dimensional cast of characters. There is a search for what is right, and as one character said, 'We can't all be doing the right thing.' This is theater; it is not reality. But it is a reflection of the world that we live in."
While the play might be taking the stage for the first time, it will also serve as the last time UF professor David Shelton will perform as a faculty member. Shelton, who plays pioneer spirit John Cody Jones in "American Western," will be retiring after a 33-year-long career.
"It's wonderful when someone has devoted their lives to our students here at UF," Marshall says. "David has a reputation, and UF has a reputation because of David, of this in-your-face acting style. I can tell you that his performance in this play is just spectacular."
Shelton, who has followed Utterback's career since his graduation, was actually the first to receive the "American Western" script.
"His writing gets more and more mature all the time," Shelton says. "Neal wanted me to act in it and I was excited to do it. It's an opportunity for him to see it presented in front of audience and see their reactions."
Intrigued by the cast of characters and the contemporary situations, Shelton passed along the script to Marshall.
"I thought to myself, this is a really stage-worthy play," Marshall says. "The audience will be surprised multiple times during the course of the play. They will laugh and they will be concerned about the people in the play."
The play hit close to home for Marshall, whose son was in his second, year-long deployment to Iraq when he read the script for the first time.
"I have to say, it was very difficult to read about a soldier coming back in a casket when you have a child over there. It's just very unsettling to say the least. It was creepy."
It was an easy decision for Marshall to bring the script to the stage, and he's now been working on the play for more than a year, sometimes consulting his son on military protocol to add to the play's authenticity.
"I have a personal stake in this, and it is such a thrill when the lights dim," he says. "It's so exciting for these actors to bring the character to life for the first time. They get to breathe life into the characters and take it from the page to the stage."
Utterback, who lives in New York, will attend this weekend's performances. Utterback and Marshall will also be conducting 20-minute talkback sessions after the performances on Saturday and Sunday, where audience members can give their feedback to the playwright and director.
"Being a new play and being an educational institution here, this is part of our research in creative activity where we are able to bring words on the page to the performance on stage. Part of that is getting feedback from audience on what works, what didn't. To me everything is clear as day, but was there any confusion for the audience?"

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