No questions asked, no insights offered.
By David A. Rosenberg
To the students slated to attend Hartford Stage’s production of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”: sit back, don’t worry. What you’re seeing is Laura Eason’s bland adaptation of the beloved book. Hitting all the highlights with hardly a nod to Twain’s style, this Cliff Notes rendering of the adventures of the mischievous Tom won’t start any fires under censorious parents or school administrators.
Not to be confused with Twain’s novel about the rebellious Huckleberry Finn, this is the one about the kid whom critic Leslie Fiedler calls the Good Bad Boy. Although Tom skips school, robs graves, gets friends to whitewash a fence, witnesses a stabbing and gets lost in a cave with Becky Thatcher, he’s a softie at heart. His happenings are mischievous yet harmless for, as Fielder writes, he is “America’s vision of itself, crude and unruly in his beginnings, but endowed by his creator with an instinctive sense of what is right.”
You won’t find much of that in Eason's version, however. Using a Story Theater approach, with actors as narrators as well as characters (“This is the story of . . .”), the result is uninvolving and unchallenging. Athletically acted by an eight-member cast, many of whom double and triple, and breathlessly directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, the evening plugs along without a care in the world, like an illustrated lecture. No questions asked, no insights offered.
Tim McKiernan’s Tom, Louisa Krause’s Becky and Casey Predovic’s Huck energetically recall their fictional counterparts. That the kids are played by adults reinforces Twain’s kaleidoscopic view of childhood. Add the workmanlike flavor and spirit of the rest of the cast in multiple roles: Chris Bowyer, Teddy Cañez, Nancy Lemenager, Erik Lochtefeld and Joe Paulik.
Ilona Somogyi’s costumes are in period without going overboard. Daniel Ostling’s scenery is minimal but flowing, although his use of flying windows threatens to take over attention, reaching its low point when still another window doubles as the cave’s escape hole. Robert Wierzel’s lighting is good at creating moods, unmatched, unfortunately, by the production which is neither humorous nor frightening enough.
Commend Hartford Stage for exposing students and adults to Twain’s irresistible tale. But, kids, do yourselves a favor: After the field trip, read the book. Even a cursory glance at the first page should make you want to plunge in.
“The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them, about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them,” Twain writes. “She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for ‘style,’ not service – she could have seen through a pair of stove lids just as well.”