REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
In the introduction to his adaptation of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Wilbur Braun advised producers, “Speed the action before the curtains and and play the entire play with zest and at a good tempo.” Director Tom Puckett heeded this advice wisely as the High Street Arts Center in Moorpark has come up with a charming and entertaining production of Twain’s classic tale of small town America in the late 19th century. Braun’s adaptation, published in 1936, was one of the first of Twain’s novel, but has remained a favorite due to its selection of key scenes and retention of much of Twain’s colorful and realistic dialogue attributed to the indelible characters that millions of American have grown up with: the crafty but lovable Tom Sawyer, his loyal friend Huckleberry Finn, the sharp-tongued, kind-hearted spinster Aunt Polly, the winsome and innocent Becky Thatcher, and menacing Injun Joe. Braun’s adaptation places most of the action in Aunt Polly’s “settin’ room” – in the course of the play, Braun had to take liberties with scenes that took place outside of Aunt Polly’s house, such as McDougal’s Cave, which would have been difficult to stage in a play, so references were made to occurrences that happened there instead of dramatizing them.
Leading the cast is seventeen-year-old Samuel Thacker, who has done a marvelous job of learning Tom Sawyer’s twangy Missouri accent, but most of all, Tom’s cheerful exuberance and kinetic personality. Tom is always thinking, plotting, reasoning, and weighing consequences, whether it’s figuring out how to avoid the manual labor his aunt uses to punish him or attempting to win the heart of Becky. The younger inhabitants of the town of St. Petersburg, Missouri had their own monetary system, where items of desire serve as currency instead of money. Tom is well versed in such exchanges, imposing value on such sundry items as an apple core and an “alley” marble (one made from alabaster) to achieve his goals. Thacker is exceedingly likable as Tom, as is Drew Downing as Huck, a secondary character in the story who got his own spotlight in Twain’s subsequent classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Downing is properly dressed more rustically than Tom, in overalls, straw hat, and bare feet, and clearly is subservient to his “more sophisticated” friend in his various schemes and bits of mischief.
The play communicates much of Mark Twain’s exquisitely constructed dialog and turns of phrases, as well as Tom Sawyer’s brilliantly deductive points of reason, such as “in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain,” which he uses to con his friend Joe Harper into whitewashing Aunt Polly’s picket fence for him.
It is clear that the character of Aunt Polly, beautifully played by Kathleen Silverman, was the basis for Aunt Eller in the musical Oklahoma! – a good-natured moral center to keep Tom in line. The lonesome but benevolent “Widder” Douglas, played by Deborah Parson, is somewhat of a peacock, but takes a shine to the boys, especially Huck. Emily Vallance is sweet and innocent as Becky Thatcher; Vallance and Thacker play their relationship well; theirs is not a true romance, but teenagers’ infatuation with one another, which blows hot and cold at a moment’s notice. Their chemistry together, however, is palpable, and we smile when they have their scenes together. Philip Kennedy plays Tom’s half-brother Sid, the worst kind of brother to have when you are that age, one who is bent on tattling on Tom out of jealousy of Aunt Polly’s clear favoring of him. The best scene in the play is when Tom pretends to be asleep and sleep-talks, convincing “Siddy” to convey his testimony about a killing he witnessed so as not to betray a promise he made with Huck not to say anything about it.
The rest of the cast play their respective parts well; the timing of the dialogue is crisp but not too brisk. It is, after all, the lazy nineteenth century. Ken Rayzor’s set design is solid, with authentic pieces of furniture and midwestern accouterments to dress it with. The lighting, designed by Patrick Duffy, is effective throughout, but especially in the dramatic nighttime scene where Tom and Huck witness a murder at a graveyard.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a marvelous introduction to the literature of Mark Twain and is a must-see for any fan of classic American literature.