Remember endless summers and their limitless possibilities, of viewing the world through the lens of a child? And don't we all still grasp sometimes for that carefree feeling? A couple of hours at an action film, a happy hour, a musical performance — a play — can soften life's concerns, for a while. Such is the world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, who play with abandon but also suffer the intrusion of the adult world around them.
Wonderment and innocence are palpable in the creative production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (adapted for the stage by Laura Eason and directed by Jeremy B. Cohen) at Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Based on Mark Twain's 1876 novel, the story of Tom, and his family and friends and community, materializes before us, realized with an artfully simple set (designed by Daniel Ostling, who also did Arabian Nights and the memorable Metamorphoses) and some inventive staging. The famous picket fence is the centerpiece, serving not only to separate scenes but also to symbolically split the spheres of children and adults.
In the province of Tom and Huck, dead cats cure warts, and a bartering system prizes dead rats, slingshots and apple cores. Pirates are heroic, school an inconvenience. And girls ruin everything — Tom's "engagement" to Becky Thatcher (sealed with the exchange of a brass doorknob) hampers, according to Huck, his and Tom's adventures. It's also a world where a graveyard murder becomes "the graveyard game." And so, that big solid fence sometimes comes apart, and real-world consequences permeate the world of make-believe.
This production of Tom Sawyer premiered at Connecticut's Hartford Stage in 2010 and had runs at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. (It debuts at the New Victory Theater in New York City in early March.) The adult actors have traveled with the production and comfortably inhabit their roles' skins.
Tim McKiernan is a perfectly unaffected Tom, bringing boyish energy to his antics. Robbie Tann's Huckleberry Finn is both mischievous and innocent, with the right amount of bravado. Hayley Treider is a natural Becky and exudes a child's joys and fears.
In this cast of eight, actors take on more than one role. Michael Nichols very adeptly handles three: the frustrated-with-Tom schoolmaster, the verbose minister, and the scary Injun Joe. Nance Williamson imbues Aunt Polly with all of a guardian's annoyance, love, worry and watchfulness. (She also does an appropriately stern turn as Widow Douglas.) Also good are Justin Fuller as friend Joe Harper; Nate Trinrud as Tom's brother, Sid, and as Doc Robinson (the graveyard murder victim); and Joseph Adams as the beleaguered, wrongly accused Muff Potter.
Scenes change often but fluidly. When it's time for church, pews on wheels roll in and out with ease (and actors mingle with puppets to compose a congregation). A tree branch or sometimes one or more windows are suspended from above to realize a classroom, a cemetery, a cave opening. And staircases are used to create the illusion of spelunking. Sound effects by Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht, of Broken Chord, populate a sparsely attended courtroom scene with onlookers and use echoes to depict a cave's depth. The lighting, too (designed by Robert Wierzel), is creatively employed to set mood, focus attention and even whitewash a fence.
The night I attended, a couple of scenes played too slowly, and the sudden reappearance of the missing Tom, Huck and Joe, as well as Tom's transition to narrator near the end, felt abrupt. But this production animates Twain's words, wit and characters. This incarnation of his story of human foibles is a pleasure to behold, if just for a couple of hours.
Mixed marriages are nothing new and can reveal a different set of human foibles. Opposites attract, after all, whether the divisions between them are religious or political or class. Prior to seeing the Unicorn Theatre's Next Fall (directed by Jeff Church), which was a Tony Award nominee in 2010, I wondered what would make this play's central coupling different from one that any of us could name, whether famous or close to home.
In Luke and Adam's relationship, one of the two men is a fundamentalist Christian who believes homosexuality is a sin. That can kind of put a damper on things.
An aspiring 20-something actor, Luke (engagingly played by Rusty Sneary) has come to New York City to take auditions and wait tables. He meets Adam at a party given by their mutual friend Holly (the capable Heidi Van). The neurotic Adam (Charles Fugate) is older. At 40, he works in Holly's candle store and feels a midlife crisis approaching. But Luke is attracted, and a flirtation starts, then a relationship, despite Luke's unquestioning religious faith that Adam constantly questions.
The story unfolds between 2004 and 2009 and jumps back and forth in time, allowing us to observe Adam and Luke's evolving life together. Adam is continually confounded by Luke's unwavering fundamentalism and troubled by Luke's need to pray for repentance after they have sex. Though his views are unfathomable to Adam, Sneary's Luke is genuine and believably resolute. A touching scene in Act 2 demonstrates their attempt to come together spiritually. There's obvious love between them, even if it remains unclear what drives that devotion.
Romantic relationships necessarily coexist with families and friends, some of whom tote Bibles. So it's not a shock that Luke hasn't come out to his Southern, fundamentalist, conservative father (a commanding but nuanced Mark Robbins). When Butch (not a subtle moniker) travels to NYC unexpectedly, Luke must "de-gay" the apartment for his dad, an effort that includes removing a Truman Capote book and trying to get Adam out of the way.
Luke's parents are 20 years divorced. His mother, Arlene — acted with the right balance of muddleheadedness and vulnerability by Merle Moores — abandoned Luke in the sandbox when he was only 5. Butch and Arlene eventually commingle with Adam, Holly and Luke's friend, Brandon (Doogin Brown), in a hospital waiting room in 2009, where another complication emerges. Only family members can consult with doctors, make important decisions, or be by the patient's side. Though a partner, Adam isn't considered "family." Plus, Luke's parents don't know who Adam really is (or do they?), so he must sit in the waiting room with Holly and Brandon, a religious gay man with his own issues.
Crisis can strengthen faith, push it away or deliver it to nonbelievers looking for answers. Geoffrey Nauffts' play alludes to these possibilities but has too much going on to delve into them. Adam's continued ridicule of, and incredulity at, Luke's belief system wears thin, and the story's many thematic elements fail to bind into a satisfactory whole.
But at Next Fall's center are these two men, who try to be there for each other when personal, familial and institutional barriers get in the way. The play lacks focus, but the struggles still make for thought-provoking theater.