COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.: A most-wanted outlaw in disguise. A poker match played for a man’s life and a woman’s future. A drip of blood that betrays a momentous secret in a mountain cabin. Sensational incident abounds in David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West, a tale of a virtuous-but-steely female saloon keeper who falls in love with a bandit during the California Gold Rush. A hit in its time, this proto-Deadwood romance is chiefly known today as the basis for the 1910 Puccini opera La Fanciulla del West.
But Belasco’s drama is getting a rare revival at THEATREWORKS April 28-May 15. Artistic director Murray Ross says he wanted to produce a Western as a way of honoring the company’s location and heritage.
“That Western tradition is fairly deep in Colorado Springs,” where “people wear cowboy hats and boots, drive pickups, and, in a sense, act out the largeness of our big-sky past,” he says. It doesn’t hurt that the Western, as a genre, is “a primal place” for Americans, adds.
As he prepared to direct the production, Ross worked to trim the original four-act script and eliminate derogatory stereotypes in its depiction of Native American and Hispanic characters. But he said he doesn’t fear the “melodrama” label that is sometimes attached to this work by Belasco (1853-1931), who was also a renowned producer. “Just like great drama, melodrama is potentially a real source of very primary, strong emotions,” Ross says.
The artistic director did briefly fret about the planned revival last fall, as Colorado Springs reeled from two local shooting rampages, including a high-profile attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic. Would the community be too traumatized to enjoy Belasco’s gun-slinging characters? Fortunately, when Ross reread the script, he decided that gunplay and violence are not ultimately central to Girl. Instead the play is a portrait of a charismatic and idealistic woman who realizes that “the world is not a place where you can remain completely untainted,” he says.