A Word In Edgewise: Shane! You’ve Come Back!

Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Photo by Mikki Schaffner

George Stevens’s Shane opened a week before my twelfth birthday, about the same age playwright Karen Zacarías read Jack Schaefer’s novel in a sixth-grade class. I read it, too–smitten by the hero, I picked up a 35-cent Ballantine paperback at Kottenhoff’s Pharmacy and sped through it. Print and images both thrilled, and though many of the subtler points went over my head then, much has been clarified and expanded through Zacarías’s superb adaptation, co-produced by the Guthrie and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. 

I was in West Hartford, CT, and Zacarías in Boston when we encountered Shane, though separated, in full disclosure, by a good three decades and deeply divergent points of view. Like hers, my parents had also moved north, but neither they, nor many others in 1940s West Hartford, were persons of color. In 1953, I unquestioningly watched the standard white cast, good and evil, while Zacarías, an immigrant girl from Mexico, having devoured the novel, never saw the film, fearing none of the characters would resemble those she imagined on the page.

There was, indeed, much to consider in the movie, but nothing (Hollywood saw to that) to indicate the greater, earlier thefts reaching back beyond the one being engineered in this frontier town between an evil cattle baron and innocent, family-oriented farmer-homesteaders. No mention either of the thousands of Black cowboys, wranglers, homesteaders who had also been given legal access to land parcels. A good quarter of the cowboys at this time (1889) were Black, Mexican or wranglers of color. Just gone were those who for generations had nurtured that land before settlers (yes, and unacknowledged settlers of color as well) had usurped their territory.   

Schaefer’s novel itself was a maverick; no typical cowboy-and-Injun shoot’em-ups; good and evil, yes, fights and threats, but broader “life” questions as well. How homesteaders should live together, treat others, keep one’s word, raise children healthy in mind and body? All important, yet, never a mention of their own part in removing indigenous peoples from the lands of their heritage. Too early? Still?

Zacaría created and added Winona Jackson, an indigenous young woman conscripted to work for cattle boss Luke Fletcher, who had stolen cattle from her people. She warns Marian Starrett while Fletcher attempts to persuade her husband Joe to sell their land. Winona, like Shane, bides her time. As in the novel, son Bobby (played here by an adult Bob), listens, watches, questions and learns. Joe refuses Fletcher; trouble is inevitable. But there is Shane.

Whatever he had been or done, Shane passed through the fire, a flawed diamond, eschewing past bloodshed, internalizing the ferocity of a Muhammad Ali in a balletic Fred Astaire frame: the first instar of “float like a butterfly, sting Iike a bee?” Shane is, in this production, a deus ex machina of color. 

Schaefer made it work first; now Zacaría broadens, deepens, and fine-tunes, embracing those who were there at the creation but never acknowledged. Jack Schaefer didn’t do too shabbily, though, for a guy who wrote the consummate western in 1949–before he’d ever ventured any further out “that-a-way” than Cleveland.

At the Guthrie Theatre through August 27

5100 Eden Ave, Suite 107 • Edina, MN 55436
©2023 Lavender Media, Inc.