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High Plains Fandango begins with a collage of characters who quickly establish the past and present of a failing small town in the High Plains of Nebraska. As the play unfolds we learn of a plan to revitalize the town by building on its western frontier identity, and a newcomer, Ken Adams, seems to have the means. He invests in business after business and may be gaining a controlling interest in the town. After failing to win over a local teenager, however, Ken finds his hidden agenda to buy up water rights exposed. After an unspecified leap forward in time, we join O'Gare, the local rancher, who has registered his objection to Ken's plan with violence. The final scene reveals O'Gare as sheriff with his "pet" Ken, putting forth the story that Ken failed in a suicide attempt. O'Gare clearly controls what happens in the town with the same firm hand he uses to run his ranch.
Shuttleworth has deftly woven a complex piece of ecocriticism focused on water supply into a suspenseful drama. The catalyst for the action is embodied in a very Western-style conflict between insider and outsider. Ken is the outsider, first described by the script as dressing "corporate casual" (4) and then later assessed by O'Gare as one of those "ol' slicks" who are always "trouble" (37). O'Gare, the insider, is a contemporary version of the frontier-hero stereotype. The narrator in the currently popular film The Gunfighter tells us "a tough man can get out of a situation, but a smart man never gets himself into one." While that film spoofs itself, O'Gare embodies the proverb. When he learns that Ken is buying water rights, he responds with a gun and an icepick. Shuttleworth thus confirms the importance of O'Gare being tough enough to use violence, and has already confirmed O'Gare's intelligence by positioning him as the only major character who doesn't make a deal with Ken. Even shooting Ken in the belly and reducing his mental capacity with an icepick to the brain doesn't just exhibit O'Gare's physical dominance; he inflicts wounds that he then publicizes as self-inflicted, painting Ken as a failure.
Story takes dominance over issues through intriguing characters [End Page 362] and growing suspense, thus avoiding the play's becoming a preachy piece of ecocriticism, but nevertheless directing our attention onto real ecological issues by rooting the story firmly in place. Through references to actual counties and towns served by the Ogallala aquifer, to pesticide-induced cancer clusters, to a publication on water supply as political power, and to the routine presence of center pivot farms, we know this theatrical script of insider O'Gare and outsider Ken resides in a real world.
Finally, we are left with a solution, not a resolution, that puts O'Gare in the shoes of the quintessential frontier sheriff, with his ranch and his wife, sitting in the center of town, watching. Rather than letting that familiar image be settled, Shuttleworth complicates our viewing with knowledge of O'Gare's lie about Ken, and questions for a theatrical production team to unravel about how the actions of O'Gare and his wife have saved the town, or not. In a myriad of additional ways, Shuttleworth has woven a tale with a dark center that raises, uses, and questions frontier myths and Wild West clichés to talk about owning water, all in a script that offers rich choices to an artistic production staff.