Feb. 1 2012 12:00 AM

A true story inspired Joseph Zettelmaier´s Western


Playwright Joseph Zettelmaier is picking up where a famous outlaw left off in his new play, “Dead Man’s Shoes,” which gets its world premiere at Williamston Theatre. 

In 1881, outlaw George Parrott was hanged for the murder of two law enforcement officers in Wyoming. After his death, Drs. Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne took Parrot’s body to study his “criminal brain” and to perform experiments on the corpse. Among other things, Parrot’s skin was made into a pair of shoes that Dr. Osborne kept — and later allegedly wore to the inaugural ball when he became governor of Wyoming in 1893. 

The story of Parrott was one of the first things to come up when Zettelmaier did a quick search of outlaw stories on the Internet, and he said he knew right away there was a play in it.

“Shoes” opens in 1883, with the meeting of Injun Bill Pecote (Drew Parker) and his drunken cohort, Froggy (Aral Gribble.) Pecote and Froggy have escaped from prison, and the play follows them on their journey through the Wild West. Pecote is on a mission to find Osborne and get vengeance for his friend, Parrott. 

Zettelmaier, who lives in Milan, said the parts of Pecote and Froggy were written with Parker and Gribble in mind. “Shoes” co-stars Paul Hopper and Maggie Meyer, who play the many characters that Pecote and Froggy meet along the way. 

The 37-year-old Zettelmaier has already won his second Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award for “Shoes”; he won his first in 2009 for “It Came From Mars,” which was produced by Williamston Theatre and Ann Arbor’s Performance Network in 2010. Zettelmaier’s culture-clash comedy, “And the Creek Don’t Rise,” broke records at Williamston last summer, becoming the theater’s best-selling show ever.

Zettelmaier said he knew he wanted to write a different kind of Western before he even started his research.

“One of my big things is, I never write the same play twice,” he said. “I always like to be different.”