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Nervous Townsfolk Anticipate a Showdown in High Noon

Axis Company adapts the 1952 western movie by Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann.

Nicholas McGovern and Katie Rose Summerfield appear in High Noon, directed by Randy Sharp, at Axis Theatre.
(© Pavel Antonov)

Something is coming. We can feel it in our bones from the moment we step into Axis Theatre, where director Randy Sharp and her company are presenting an adaptation of High Noon, the 1952 western starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. While that film tells the story of one brave lawman doing the right thing in spite of evaporating support, this onstage anxiety dream forces us to reexamine what really is the "right thing," and why an allegedly heroic marshal would find himself alone.

The tension is running high in this frontier town because Guy Jordan is coming back on the noon train. He's a killer that Marshal Will Barnon (Brian Barnhart) sent away years ago. Now he's returning to exact his revenge right as Barnon is retiring. Barnon's new wife, Alice (Katie Rose Summerfield), wants him to leave with her, but the new marshal hasn't arrived yet and Barnon feels a sense of duty to the town. The sentiment isn't returned. "There's plenty people around here think he's got a come-uppance coming," Henry the bartender (Phil Gillen) tells Alice. He also speculates that the economy will begin to boom (albeit with illicit money) once Jordan and his posse take over.

Phil Gillen plays Henry in High Noon.
(© Pavel Antonov)

The clear-eyed presentation of a community's propensity to welcome a criminal with open arms is one of the things that make the film (screenplay by Carl Foreman, directed by Fred Zinnemann) one of the smartest westerns to come out of Hollywood.

While the names have been changed, the basic story remains in this stage version. Sharp goes one step further than Foreman by shining a flashlight into the dark cave of Barnon's past to show what has made him so resented. We see glimmers of a blood-soaked prairie, violence that was committed for profit and then justified under the law. As Barnon, Brian Barnhart veils his emotions with a poker face and a deadpan vocal delivery. Rather than coming off like a silver screen stoic, it feels like he has something to hide.

Granted, every performance is unnervingly suspicious. With bulging eyes and a foreboding voice, Spencer Aste is particularly unsettling as Judge Mettrik. As woman of ill-repute Helen, Britt Genelin wears a locket suspended by lace, but it really seems like she's carrying around something much heavier.

Spencer Aste plays Judge Mettrik in High Noon.
(© Pavel Antonov)

Sharp keeps the entire cast milling onstage through the 65-minute show. They mutter and echo certain lines, pretending to stare upstage, but always watching our central players. Sometimes, everyone will suddenly look offstage left as is someone is about to enter, but no one does. Costume designer Karl Ruckdeschel has outfitted each actor with a pocket watch, which they simultaneously snap open and shut to signify the approaching showdown. Ruckdeschel's funereal period costumes really pop against Chad Yarborough's desolate all-white set. With her black bonnet and bouquet of baby's breath, Alice especially looks like something out of Edgar Allen Poe. Presented as one long scene with no clear breaks, Sharp's dark vision feels like an inescapable nightmare, which might explain why we often feel the irresistible pull of sleep.

Sound designer Paul Carbonara underscores the entire production with the whoosh of wind sweeping across the prairie. It keeps us constantly aware of the environment, while also making a convincing sales pitch for those white noise machines people keep on their nightstands. David Zeffern's stark lighting helps to keep us attentive, if not completely conscious.

Brian Barnhart plays Barnon, and Katie Rose Summerfield plays Alice in High Noon.
(© Pavel Antonov)

Despite its occasionally soporific tone, High Noon couldn't be timelier as we reexamine political authority and who has the legitimacy to wield it. While the original film presented a black and white tale of duty, Axis admirably paints in shades of gray.