"The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid” is a gripping play, based on history and sprinkled with dry humor. Playwright Lee Blessing stirred up the facts surrounding the death of the famed outlaw, who was supposedly shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett, and followed them up with his own scenario that asks, “What if?”
The Spot in Arroyo Grande continues to produce provocative plays that are out of the mainstream. Four fine actors, directed by Jake Liam McGuire, take us back to the Old West in this one.
The title of the play is actually the title of a book, a biography and firsthand account written by Garrett in collaboration with a ghostwriter, Marshall Ashmun “Ash” Upson, in 1882.
The play opens decades later, with Garrett in a cabin on his ranch as a storm rages in the night. There’s a knock on his door, and he grabs a gun and points it at the door. His visitor is Ash Upson, although he doesn’t recognize him at first. They haven’t seen each other in years.
After establishing his identity and calming Garrett down, Upson brings in another man who, after some tense moments, claims to be Billy the Kid. He says that Garrett killed the wrong man those many years ago. Upson wants to take “Billy” and Garrett on the road in a show reenacting the historic shooting. The dialogue is punctuated with threats and confrontations as the two men argue over whether “Billy” is the real thing, citing Billy the Kid’s history of killings.
The playwright’s creative and skillful blend of fact and fiction is given just the right touch of irony in this production, as the actors put on tough fronts but still reveal vulnerability.
Brian Williams plays Garrett as a bitter, cantankerous man, always on the defensive. Matthew J. Hanson’s Billy is volatile and trigger-happy, ready to explode at any moment. Neither man seems very bright, and both are sometimes humorously naïve. Tension builds between them, but there are wryly comic moments as Upson tries to get them to rehearse (without real weapons) the show he has in mind, telling them they will split the proceeds 50-50 and he’ll get 25 percent.
Tom Ammon is terrific as Upson, trying to cool the men’s heating tempers while realizing that something is going to happen. The audience, too, is preparing for action as guns are pointed and flashed about. In the second act a fourth man is the center of interest. Jim Miller, played with a mysterious air by Dave Linfield, enters the scene as a prospective buyer for Garrett’s ranch. But as he talks, it becomes apparent, at least to the audience, that he has ulterior motives, and he becomes a catalyst for the action.
The actual history that the play is based on is printed in the program, but I think it would be better to read it after seeing the play. If you read it before, it will spoil some of the intrigue of the second act. But if you read it after the play, it will explain what happens after the events are over.
The Spot is still at its same spot in Arroyo Grande, but it’s a bit hard to find. The building the theater is in is being remodeled, and the theater space was hidden by walls of plywood. But there is a door behind the false front, if it’s still up.
IF YOU GO
"The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid"
8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 23
The Spot, 116 W. Branch St., Arroyo Grande
$15 to $20
474-5711 or www.thespotag.com