Terry Earp’s connection with the Old West starts, naturally enough, with that surname. Her husband is Wyatt Earp, greatnephew of and dead ringer for the famous lawman of the same name.
But the ties go much deeper. For nearly a decade, the north Phoenix playwright and actress, 56, has carved a reputation for finding the humanity underneath the Old West’s stock images of gunfighters and prostitutes, shootouts and saloons — and bringing it to the stage as poignant and illuminating historical monologues.
"In a way, I think it’s like creating an epilogue," Earp says. "It completes the story."
Her first and best-known bioplay, 1996’s "Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier," a one-man show starring her husband, has been performed more than 470 times across the United States and Europe.
Subsequent bioplays — alongside more contemporary histories, like those of Phoenix restaurateur Jack Durant and stripper Angel CeCe Walker — have plumbed the rich lives of gambling dentist-turnedgunfighter Doc Holliday ("The Gentleman Doc Holliday") and his wife ("Kate: The Woman of Many Names").
So it’s only logical that Earp’s latest effort as a playwright and actress is a solo piece about Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, third wife of the historical Wyatt.
"Mrs. Wyatt Earp," directed by A. Nannette Taylor, will get its debut at Kerr Cultural Center in Scottsdale this week.
FINDING COMPASSION IN HISTORY
Hers is a story seldom told: A woman of Jewish stock tough enough to handle a stubborn gunslinger of a husband for 47 years, a gambling addict, an alleged former prostitute, a runaway and a prolific liar.
People had been asking Earp to undertake the project for the better part of a decade. That it’s taken so long for Earp to write about the woman — whom Wyatt called Sadie — speaks to how she struggled to find a sympathetic character within.
"Wyatt epitomized the West. He was very nononsense, very black-andwhite, a moral man," Earp says. "But Sadie, I didn’t know how I could make her likable."
In the end, she found a narrative device — Sadie is talking not to a theatrical audience but, rather, a feral cat — that softens her image, and an underlying purpose behind her need to talk: Sadie wants to set the record straight about her husband, who wasn’t just the sum of his gunfights.
"She really did devote herself to getting his story out there so it would be true," Earp says.
Then again, true to Sadie’s nature — this, after all, is a woman who was never much for the uncomfortable truth — the play is half fact and, according to Earp, half figments of Sadie’s imagination.
"And we never answer which is which," Earp says. "Because that isn’t our job. This is who Sadie is."
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
The Earps’ cozy, Southwestern-appointed home brims with historical artifacts: Laminated photos, period clothing, stacks of biographies — including a miniature library of Wyatt Earp books.
Terry Earp and her husband have spent years studying the family legacy and winnowing out a deeper understanding of the man who became a legend after a bloody 30-second gunfight in Tombstone in 1881.
"What do they call it? Earpamania," Terry says, scanning a bookshelf of Wyatt Earp texts.
"Every little tiny detail of this man’s life. Many, not all, miss the point. He was a human being."
Which is at the heart of "Mrs. Wyatt Earp," Sadie’s effort to deconstruct an American icon not through the usual routes — his more salacious side, the affairs and controversies — but by reflecting his domestic side, disarmed.
"I don’t know why people have such a fascination for all the terrible things that happened in Tombstone," Sophie says in Earp’s play. "The only thing Wyatt ever wanted was for the past to be put behind him so he could live his life in peace."