After the gold rush

Long Shadow

John Sousa is trapped in the controversy of a double homicide in <i>Long Shadow</i>.

John Sousa is trapped in the controversy of a double homicide in Long Shadow.

Rated 4.0

The year is 1944, with the war dragging on. A decorated veteran, recently returned from the Pacific, is killed in a hunting accident. Suspicion focuses on “Wild Bill” Ebaugh, a longhaired, bearded eccentric who’s had run-ins with the law and the loony bin, as well as many girlfriends. A $300 “dead or alive” reward is posted—big money for those days, especially in the Sierra Foothills, where unemployment (and underemployment) had run high ever since the gold rush had receded.

Did Ebaugh do it? Hard to say—he’s gunned down by a bounty hunter before he tells his side of the story. At 60 years removed, we moderns will never know for sure. Discussion has simmered in Nevada County for decades. What matters in Long Shadow (written by director Conrad Bishop and sound designer Elizabeth Fuller, as Elvet Konrad) is how the many shades of gray and layers of fear play out in a small community gripped by wartime shortages and a degree of paranoia: the way it crops up in conversations and even in people’s dreams. Some fear Ebaugh, or dislike him because he’s different. Others see him as a fall guy, strange but ultimately innocent.

The show features several excellent performances, including former artistic director Philip Charles Sneed as the sheriff—torn between his hunch that Ebaugh did it, the political necessity of “solving” the case of the murdered veteran, and the knowledge that he really doesn’t have much evidence against Ebaugh.

Also excellent is Gary Wright as the deputy sheriff, who’s less concerned with ethics than his boss is. (Wright’s rambling voice and projected shadow also portray Ebaugh, silhouetted on a huge scrim painted with see-through newspaper headlines; good work by designer Pamela Hodges.) Carolyn Howarth is also good as a desperate farm girl, fading into old-maid status. John Sousa and Karyn Casl play the bounty hunter and his wife, eking out a marginal living.

It’s not a perfect show. There were some line problems (not surprising, since the playwrights added new material on opening night). Fuller also might want to reconsider her sound design, which relies on snarling synthesizers to the point that it begins to resemble a negative political hit ad.

Such quibbles aside, Long Shadow is a handsome, engrossing original production. It’s also the current installment in Foothill Theatre’s New Voices of the Wild West series, now in its seventh year of presenting new plays with regional/Western themes. It’s a remarkable ongoing project, year after year, and there’s nothing else like it in the area.