If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Classic Novel to Stage with Hartford’s “Tom Sawyer”
Hartford Stage has ended its season like it began – with a world premiere event. If the current stage debut of Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” does not equal the achievement that Horton Foote’s magnificent “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” was for the theatre back in October, it isn’t for lack of trying. Laura Eason’s faithful - at times slavish – adaptation of Twain’s well-known tale hits all the familiar notes from the novel. It is an achievement not to be taken lightly. Whether is has a place on stage is another question.
With a mostly youthful cast of 8 playing 17 roles, Eason structures her play as a series of vignettes set in and around St. Petersburg, Missouri in the 1840s. Many of these sequences will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Mr. Twain’s popular work and its iconic cast of characters: Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher, Aunt Polly, Injun Joe and the title character played here by a rambunctious Tim McKiernan in his professional theatre debut. Director Jeremy B. Cohen has creatively staged the various vignettes with a minimum of fuss so that the school room scenes glide easily into a church setting while, later in the evening, stair units are shifted to create a cave dwelling for Becky and Tom to explore (the movable scenic design is by Daniel Ostling).
Huck and his dead cat, Tom and Becky passing notes in class, a graveyard murder and, of course, whitewashing the picket fence are all reenacted here in enthusiastic if perfunctory style. You can almost see Ms. Eason checking off the novel’s most significant events before getting to the final curtain. There’s nothing really wrong with this approach, but it seldom resonates as memorable theatre either. You begin wondering to which audience this play will ultimately appeal? It’s probably too old-fashioned for savvy high schoolers and often too childish for adults.
In addition, the level of acting in Hartford is not always consistent. The company seems to have been directed to use the top of their voices throughout and the doubling of roles is more of a challenge for some than others. Mr. McKiernan is a perfectly fine Tom especially when he gives his lungs a rest for a few quiet scenes and Casey Predovic is a good match for him as the unruly Huck Finn. Nancy Lemenager nicely balances Aunt Polly’s warmth and starch but Teddy Canez broadly overplays both the school master and minister (they are barely recognizable from each other) and milks Injun Joe’s venom to irritating excess. And while Louisa Krause certainly looks the role of Becky Thatcher, she seems to be acting with her pigtails and little else.
The Broken Chord Collective has provided effective original music and sound for the production. Although Mr. Cohen allows the cave sequence to extend for far too long in the play’s busy second act, the imaginative sound design during this vignette can not be faulted. Praise also to Robert Wierzel’s lighting and Ilona Somogyi’s homespun costuming. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is fine for what it is, but by the final curtain, you may want to check out the original source. Or just read Twain’s superior “Huckleberry Finn” instead.
"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” continues at Hartford Stage through May 9th. For further information and tickets reservations call the box office at 860.527.5151 or online at www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning April 14, 2010