Tom Sawyer, “A History of a Boy,” Comes to Actors Theatre

by Graham Shelby on October 11, 2011

Tom Sawyer is one of literature’s most celebrated children; a character who has inspired adaptation for more than a century.

The first U.S. film version appeared in 1907. The first Soviet Tom Sawyer film debuted in 1936. There are musical, cartoon, theme park and video game incarnations of Tom, and thousands or even millions of Japanese middle-schoolers have studied English by reciting Tom Sawyer dialogue adapted for a series of textbooks:

Aunt Polly: You’re a bad boy! You must work tomorrow.

Tom: On Saturday?

In the new stage adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that opened last week at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the eternal tension between child and adult, present and past, plays out in both the story and the production itself.

The Actors Theatre website says, “Relive all that is grand and glorious about childhood,” and recommends Tom Sawyer for ages 10 and up. There is plenty of wonder and joy in this play as Tom (Tim McKeirnan) hunts for treasure with Huck (Robbie Tann) and talks Becky Thatcher (Hayley Treider) into giving him a kiss and getting “engaged” (though neither seems entirely clear on what this means).

Aunt Polly’s iconic fence is the play’s only permanent setpiece. The production creates the illusion of whitewashing through a combination of mime and lighting; with each dry brushstroke, a bright, white light illuminates its way inch-by-inch across the fence.

Like any childhood, though, Tom Sawyer’s has its dark moments, and the show embraces them. Children at a recent performance (some of whom were clearly younger than 10) squirmed during the first-act murder and in Tom’s vivid nightmare scene that opens Act Two. Also, every parent who’d brought a younger child to the theatre probably shuddered when Injun Joe (Michael D. Nichols) described his plans for the Widow Douglas by saying something along the lines of, “If you want to go after a woman, you don’t kill her. You go after her looks. Slit her nostrils,” he says, brandishing a knife.

The plot is somewhat episodic and as a result the sequence and structure work differently than that of many contemporary plays. If The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were written today (or adapted less faithfully by playwright Laura Eason), Tom would hold off on embracing maturity until somewhere in Act Two, most likely in close narrative proximity to a final confrontation with Injun Joe. Instead, Tom’s major turning point (where he admits to witnessing a murder) happens in Act One and the faceoff with Injun Joe never occurs at all.

It’s worth noting that Mark Twain made Tom Sawyer the hero in two later books (Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective), but those incarnations didn’t resonate like the original. The play ends happily, with Tom’s dreams of treasure realized and the ensemble cast reciting a version of the words Twain used to close the novel in 1876:

“So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a BOY, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a MAN.”

And with that, the lights come up and we leave Tom Sawyer where we like him, forever in childhood.

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