MARCO ISLAND — Soap opera star Walt Willey left the manicured streets of Pine Valley for the rough-and-tumble frontier along America's Old West this weekend. Willey brought his one-man show "Wild Bill: An Evening with James Butler Hickok" to Marco Island for a four-night run with the Island Players.
Willey and Island Players co-founder Pat Berry have worked together for years on the annual SoapFest event. Willey serves on the Island Players advisory board and lent a hand during the group's inaugural production, "A Bad Year for Tomatoes."
The actor brought "Wild Bill" to Marco Island as part of a workshop process for the show, revealing to the audience that he'd only finalized this version of the script a week ago. He performs the show as a staged reading, occasionally using an open script placed on either the saloon set's bar or wooden table.
A gifted actor, Willey transforms himself into the lawman. Grey pinstriped pants tuck into knee-high leather cavalry boots. A natty vest with a subtle teardrop pattern buttons over a black tie. Colt 1851 Navy revolvers tuck into a black leather belt that hangs low on the hips. Flowing locks complete the look (even fooling some of the audience). Mary Still at Western Costume created the ensemble, with Jennifer Aspinall aiding Willey on make-up and hair.
Willey delves into Hickok's fascinating past with obvious passion, sparked by discovering they were both born in LaSalle County, Illinois. Over the course of two-plus hours, he runs through Hickok's career as a lawman, his childhood, the women, adventures during the Civil War, the women, sharpshooting, the women and his death by the hand of Jack McCall. Some of this might be familiar to viewers of HBO's profanity-filled "Deadwood;" the show sought out Keith Carradine to bring the character's Dakota Territory years to life during that drama's first season.
Hickok proves a marvelous subject for a one-man character study. Willey, having written the show and planned the performance, knows the rhythms of the material intimately. He also understands how to move on stage - from the bar for a "taste" of whiskey to table for poker chips or back to the bar for more liquor. His storytelling skills - even when he's using his notes - keep the audience entranced.
Willey crafts an engrossing picture. Hickok emerges as what Willey calls "the first media celebrity - the first Kardashian." In a series of anecdotes, he lays out how Hickok's reputation as a sharpshooter, lawman, scout and gambler was built - and how the man himself tried to stick to certain moral code. Willey also digs into Hickok's past, trying to illustrate how the man's values were formed.
Moving forward, the show - obviously a work in progress - will need some judicious pruning and shaping. In his enthusiasm for the subject matter, Willey throws everything in the prarie, plus the kitchen sink at the audience. The actor has to decide which anecdotes strengthen the narrative, which ones might best entertain audiences and which ones might be jettisoned.
Willey explores a variety of topics and themes, although only Hickok's determined personal code of honor - that he "never killed a man that didn't need killing" - really shines through. Willey also tries to separate fact from fiction regarding Hickok's many deeds; this might prove fertile ground for future exploration, along with the sharpshooter's moving struggle with blindness.
Willey has solid comedic skills (he's toured comedy clubs, including Captain Brien's Off the Hook); I'd like to see him take the show's humor even farther. Every line about "the women" got laughs.
While I personally dislike audience participation, I think it may work in this case, especially if Willey uses the character's gruff drawl. During the post-show talkback, the women in the audience especially loved being mock-grilled in the Hickok voice. Willey also danced with an audience member, bidding her farewell to her retreating figure with "I love to watch you go..."
Length of the piece may also be a factor. The first act, while certainly entertaining, stretches for an hour. There's no real climb to a dramatic peak at intermission, nor indeed through much of the show. Either trimming the production to a straight 90 minutes, or two taut 45-minute halves may work. Willey's storytelling skills are beyond reproach, but I'd prefer some sort of emotional journey to keep the event from feeling like a pure history lesson.
Willey has certainly started far down the road of crafting a vivid, well-rounded and robust character - one that's well-known, well-loved and singularly fascinating to watch. His James Butler Hickok captures imaginations and the portrayal builds a world of sharpshooters, gunslingers, Indians and horses that sweep audiences into the wild prairies of the Old West. Just don't sit with your back to the door.
Did you watch "Deadwood?" What did you think? Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.