Upon receiving the DVD for “Outride the Devil,” I found myself gasping a more-than-audible “Uh oh!” The contents promised a one-man show starring someone named Kit Hussey playing Doc Holliday, the legendary Wild West gambler-gunfighter, with the production “filmed at the Creative Arts Theatre in Arlington, Texas.”
Call it snobby behavior on my part – I’m a native New Yorker who’s been attending Broadway shows since I was five, so the idea of an unknown actor in a one-man-show in an out-of-the-way theater just didn’t seem like a worthwhile endeavor to release on DVD.
Well, was I wrong – a hundred times over! “Outride the Devil” is nothing short of a revelation: a wildly entertaining, brilliantly conceived and vigorously produced celebration of what the Wild West was really about. And Hussey, who should be on the speed dial of every casting director in Hollywood, gives the performance of a lifetime as the complex, abrasive but utterly fascinating Doc Holliday. Not since James Whitmore’s Oscar-nominated one-man triumph in “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” has there been a solo show that can hold the viewer’s attention with such force and style.
The Wild West has twisted the truth into colorful and often bowdlerizing legend, so kudos to “Outride the Devil” for presenting the Doc Holliday story with the ugly truths anchored in place. The Georgia-born Holliday was no one’s idea of a saint – he speaks without apologies of shooting at “Nigra boys” who were swimming in the “white people’s part of the river” and he freely refers to his long-time companion Kate Elder as a “w***e.” A commentary on the near-extinction of the American buffalo is treated with equal contempt: he rues the brutal overhunting of the creature only because buffalo meat was a favored delicacy that disappeared from the menus of his favorite restaurants.
Holliday, a would-be dentist who was forced to give up his practice due to tuberculosis, was given a year to live after doctors diagnosed his illness. He outlasted the diagnosis by 14 years, supporting himself mainly as a gambler. His skill with a gun and knife saved him on many occasions. While Holliday surrounded himself with allies, most notably the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, he also found himself with a surplus of adversaries. The defining moment of his life, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, is presented in a vivid description that details every aspect of the bloody duel (including the often-overlooked fact that the gunfight didn’t take place anywhere near the O.K. Corral).
But Hussey’s Holliday is not without his charms. He speaks of ordering “a bottle of breakfast” and liberally empties his whiskey glasses with a single unbroken gulp. Crooked card games are presented with melodramatic hand flourishes and insider trickery tips (an ace of spades is casually extracted from a vest pocket while distracting finger dancing moves a queen of hearts from the bottom of a pack to the top of the deck). Throughout the presentation, an off-stage “nurse” is supposedly waiting for Holliday to finish his raconteur rambles and partake of the mineral water treatments at a health spa; his playful contempt for that well-intended therapeutic regimen and its well-meaning practitioner is more naughty than nasty.
Though in one key moment, Holliday’s humanity cracks through his rough-and-tumble demeanor. Throughout the show, he recites letters written from his Wild West travels to a beloved female cousin back in Georgia. The final letter, though, is read with an uncommon sadness: his cousin has taken the vows of a nun and has chosen to live the remainder of her life behind the walls of a convent. The anguish on Holliday’s face and in his voice in painfully acknowledging her decision is crushing – not only is there the possibility of no further contact with her, but there is also the reality that the world will never experience her beauty and intelligence. It is a small but jolting moment of great emotion.
Hussey, who wrote this play, is framed by director Brian Greene primarily in close-ups and medium shots (this is not, by any stretch, a static filmed play). Hussey is apparently a fixture of the Texas theatrical scene, yet there is nothing stagy about his interpretation of Doc Holliday. He captures the moody, vengeful, bitter and surprisingly vulnerable man through a fascinating display of intelligent underplaying. Most people may assume the Wild West was made up of Yosemite Sam clones, but not in this case. Hussey’s Holliday speaks matter-of-factly – there’s no braggadocio or self-importance here, but rather the well-told tale of an ordinary man who led an extraordinary life. Yet the overwhelming color of his adventures contrast vibrantly with the seeming lack of ego of the storyteller, which ultimately makes the tales all the more fascinating since we realize we are witness to living history and not leaden histrionics (and, for the record, Hussey’s well-researched text is the most accurate Doc Holliday story ever put on film).
“Outride the Devil” was shot in a crisp HD, which makes this production even more thrilling t watch. Yet even if this was captured in blurry Super 8, it wouldn’t matter – the power and glory of this remarkable work would still shine through.