The Ballad of Jesse James | The Midnight Company

Hanrahan’s Frank has a bit more humor than his little brother—a little less pride and maybe a touch more loyalty—although the play leaves that open to interpretation.


By Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
Through April 9, 2006

In a stark white room at Technisonic Studios, Missouri legend Jesse James (played by David Wassilak) comes to life again in St. Louis in 2006, along with his brother, Frank (Joe Hanrahan), and their friend, Cole Younger (Larry Dell).

By alternating dramatic scenes with narration, The Ballad of Jesse James leads the audience through the lives of Jesse, Frank, Cole, and their families and friends, at the turbulent time surrounding the Civil War. The story of these lives that included not only robberies and murder, but also love, loyalty, and pride, is mostly narrated by everyone except Jesse himself.

The extremely minimal set consisted of only wood chairs, stools, and a few props. Yet the three-man cast managed to bring a variety of settings to life, turning the white backdrop of the studio into a blank slate against which audience members could cast their own version of rural Missouri, the woods of Minnesota, train and bank robberies, and every other place visited by the narrative. Thanks to excellent performances by all three performers, it was possible to imagine everything that wasn’t there.

Wassilak’s Jesse is bold, nervy, serious, and a little proud; the perfect combination for an outlaw who thoroughly believed in what he did, and who quoted Bible verses while taking Yankee money when the banks refused to give loans to Rebel supporters of the defeated Confederates. Hanrahan’s Frank has a bit more humor than his little brother—a little less pride and maybe a touch more loyalty—although the play leaves that open to interpretation, with alternate endings to the defining robbery in the outlaws’ careers, the Northfield bank robbery in Minnesota. Frank countered Jesse’s scripture with quotations from Shakespeare; the chosen texts of the brothers highlighted the differences in their personalities.

Dell went through amazing transformations onstage, portraying Cole at the time of the James gang’s reign, as well as an older Cole, newly freed after 25 years in prison. He also provided much of the narration in a smooth, clear voice; played the guitar accompaniment; and performed the role of Edwards, a supportive editor of a Kansas City newspaper. Dell could narrate the movements of sand in the desert and I’d be enthralled, his voice was so perfectly suited to the task. But given the eventful life the James brothers and Cole led, there was no stretch for interesting material.

Doug Hastings’ lighting design was perfect, adding depth to the white space and illuminating the performers in effective ways. Hanrahan’s direction made use of the space, bringing the audience into a train robbery, and using the stage in such a way that there was never any question about what to watch, nor about what was going on.

The performance runs a scant 90 minutes with no intermission, but the theater was on the chilly side, so definitely bring a sweater.

The Ballad of Jesse James is entertaining as well as educational, and—although the truth may never be known—it felt like the true story, or as close as one could possibly get. Don’t miss this chance to come closer to the life of Jesse James, a man who lived as an outlaw for 20 years, and whose history just may have a thing or two to teach us about passion, terrorism, and the thirst for revenge.

The Midnight Company presents Joe Hanrahan’s Ballad of Jesse James through April 9 at Technisonic Studios (500 S. Ewing, near Jefferson and Hwy. 64 in St. Louis). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat. and 7 p.m. Sun., with a special $5 matinee at 2 p.m. Sun., April 9. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors. Reservations can be made by calling 314-773-1503.

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