Stagefemmes’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s play Late, a Cowboy Song begins like any other Western: as the audience finds their seats, a cowboy’s silhouette looks into the distance calmly presiding over a vast landscape. However, in this story, set in the early 2000s, the landscape is the outskirts of Pittsburgh, and the cowboy is a woman. Performed on Oct. 25 and 26 at the Harlene Marley Black Box Theater, the show featured authentic renderings of domestic life and cowboyhood, allowing for a nuanced exploration of the fluid nature of identity.
Mary (Grace Jolliffe ’23) and Crick (Miles Shebar ’20) have been in love since they were eight years old. However, marriage and parenthood fail to match Crick’s vision of a perfect American family, and Mary befriends Red (Hannah Johnston ’20), an old acquaintance who calls herself “a lady cowboy.” While Crick’s anger begins to manifest as domestic abuse, Red shows Mary an alternative lifestyle of riding horses and singing under the night sky, and the two begin to fall in love.
The characters navigate personal realizations of sexuality and gender but lack the vocabulary and cultural consciousness to articulate these realizations to each other. The result is an honest portrayal of self-discovery and self-definition, one that not only engages with queer identity but also with the broader struggle of understanding and identifying oneself. “It brings in all of these ‘hot topics’ but … I think what makes it exciting is that it’s not about any of those hot topics, because in the end, it’s just about Mary and how she defines herself,” director Emily Blanquera ’20 said. “I was excited about a narrative of definition, of self-definition … She learns to move into a space that’s much less defined.”
Jolliffe skillfully met the challenge of portraying Mary in the midst of her self-discovery. Her character’s youthful optimism becomes tempered by both positive and negative experiences, and, while the play is not quite a coming-of-age story, Jolliffe’s Mary slowly develops maturity and self-awareness. In doing so, the audience was able to witness her dread at the end of her marriage as well as her joy in realizing new possibilities with Red.
Shebar’s performance brought depth to his character, balancing a boyish yet charming love for Mary with his closed-mindedness as a father and husband. His character was a sympathetic but ultimately unredeemable antagonist whose hostility stems from ignorance rather than true malice.
Similarly, Johnston was a convincing cowboy, whose stoic, self-assured presence faltered only with a developing tenderness for Mary. Her desire for Jolliffe was palpable, and their chemistry brought vibrancy and hope to an otherwise bleak story.
The set design by Heather McCabe ’20 and the prop design by Eden Stephey ’21 reflected the opposing dynamics of Mary’s relationships. The play began in Mary and Crick’s living room and kitchen, which was full of furniture and other domestic clutter and elevated above the rest of the stage. In contrast, Red’s farm filled the front of the stage and had minimal decoration aside from a wooden fence and a makeshift horse. This duality underscored the suffocation of Mary’s marriage as well as the potential for freedom with Red.
Ruhl’s writing deftly allows for the experiences of heartbreak and first love to coexist in one narrative. Red’s cowboy songs in particular were lyrically rich and provided a soulful interlude between sharply realist scenes. At times, however, the story felt dis-jointed. Certain elements, such as the choice to make Mary and Crick’s baby intersex, seemed to serve only as plot devices to trigger Mary’s introspection rather than narrative components in themselves.
However, any cracks in the writing were overcome by Blanquera’s direction and her actors’ performances. The effect is a refreshingly optimistic and universally resonate story of cowboys and queer love.