Curtain Call: Tom Sawyer
What: Tom Sawyer (live theater)
When: 2010-07-22 - 2010-07-25
Carbondale will once again take a trip through time to an America gone by as the Stage Company revives one of Mark Twain's most popular tales. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will run Thursday through Sunday, July 22 through July 25 at the Varsity Center for the Arts.
Directed by Catherine Field and featuring a cast of actors and actresses ranging in age from their early teens through their mid-twenties, the Stage Company presentation of Tom Sawyer was adapted by former SIU professor and Stage Company veteran Christian H. Moe along with Cameron Garbutt. The play, taken faithfully from the text of Twain's original 1876 masterpiece, follows the heroic adventures of the mischievous Missouri preteen as he finds adventure, mystery, and intrigue while growing up in the fictional pre-Civil War town of Saint Petersburg, inspired by Twain's own childhood home of Hannibal.
Living with his Aunt Polly and Cousin Mary, at the beginning of the story Tom is a typical rough-and-tumble river-town boy whose biggest adventures include being punished for fighting and falling in love with the local beauty, Becky Thatcher. However, one night Tom teams up with another Saint Petersburg boy, Huckleberry Finn, son of the well-known town inebriate, for an adventure into the town graveyard and a search for a cure for warts. While there, the rambunctious pair witness the murder of the young "Doc" Robinson at the hands of the local villain, Injun Joe.
Frightened, the pair run away into the night, swearing a boys' blood oath never to reveal what they have witnessed. Later, after learning that an innocent man, Muff Potter, has been arrested and blamed for the murder, Tom and Huck, besotted with guilt for knowing and hiding the truth, run away, accompanied by their mutual friend, Joe Harper, and row off to an island in the mighty Mississippi, where the trio hide out and begin a boys' adventure as pirates.
With its humorous plot twists, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer makes the perfect summer story for every member of the family.
At a recent rehearsal, Nightlife caught up with director Catherine Field, who said that the decision to bring back one of Mark Twain's most popular tales was influenced by many factors.
"[Tom Sawyer] was chosen was chosen because it's the one-hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain's death," Field said. "It's also the 175th anniversary of his birth. In addition, we've done this particular show before, and the production was just terrific. Also, like Walt Disney, we periodically like to redo shows that have been very successful for us. After all, kids grow up, and there's always a whole new generation waiting to discover the show and the story."
When asked what makes this adaptation different from the many other stage and screen incarnations of Tom Sawyer, Field proudly says that its local and original roots will certainly give the stage presentation a different flavor than audiences are used to in screen versions.
"This version was not taken from a previously published script; it was adapted by Doctor Moe," Field said. "It is very fast-moving, fast-paced, and it is very funny. Of course, it's not that hard to be funny when you've got Mark Twain material to start with. When you're doing an adaptation, you have to select the scenes from the book that are going to be most visual. For a children's play, you can't go into long, extended dialog. You have to have things constantly happening, and it has to move along. This show has all of that. The only problem is, 'How do you take nineteenth-century material and get twenty-first century children to understand?' You solve that problem by saying, 'What do kids understand?' Kids understand things that are fast-paced and funny. This adaptation does those things nicely, and it provides plenty of action."
As with most of Mark Twain's writings, the Mississippi River plays a prominent role, almost becoming an additional character in the story and providing the background and basis for much of the action. When asked how a force of nature like the river can be included in a stage production, Field said that the script provides ways to stimulate the imaginations of the audience, who cannot see the river but will still feel its presence in the story.
"For the most part, what this production does is reference the river indirectly," Field said. "For example, the hillside is part of our set. When the characters come up from the river, they come up over the hillside, such as you would a riverbank. When the kids hit the riverbank to run away to the island and be pirates, we have them going down the hill. You can't see the raft, but you can see them pulling the raft."
Twain's writing is often frank and sometimes offensive to modern audiences. Field tells Nightlife that while some of Twain's language can be offensive in light of current, enlightened understandings, she feels that twenty-first century audiences have much to gain from the writer's unique and legendary American voice.
"[Huck Finn] is a bit more problematic than this piece in those terms," she said. "That's the show where you get the N-word being used and the problems over the philosophy behind slavery. With Tom Sawyer, the biggest problem to work with is Injun Joe. He's a half-breed Native American. What we've decided to do is just play it straight, the way Twain wrote it. I don't think there's any need to explain it. Adults will understand that this man is a victim of circumstances, that he wasn't born evil. Mark Twain himself believed that evil was something that you were born into; that it ran in the blood. Of course, we don't believe that way anymore, and the show isn't presented that way. Everyone, however, responds to Injun Joe as though he's a bad guy. The thing that young people will take away from this show with regard to Injun Joe is that if you treat someone like they're a bad guy, eventually they will become a bad guy. People shun him when he walks into town. Even when he's testifying in court, he's on one side of the room, and everyone else is on the other side of the room."
Field also said that while young children may not understand everything that Twain has to say, his broader statements about the human condition have a universal appeal that will continue to resurface.
"I taught both literature and sociology, so whenever I do theater for young people, I draw on both of those," Field said. "Most of the kids who come into the theater are usually pretty academically savvy. It's usually kids who like to read who like to do theater. Twain's appeal, if you ask a literary critic, is that he invented 'the American voice.' He invented that voice that spoke for all of us. It was a very modern voice in a Victorian era, a voice that said: 'Here I am! I'm Tom Sawyer and I can lick any boy in this town!' In so doing, Twain eliminated a lot of the cliché s about the Victorian era. Most people think of the Victorian era as gingerbread-looking houses trimmed with lace-looking woodwork and people with twenty-six layers of clothing. Mark Twain cut through all that. He said, 'There is an American voice, and I'm it. I'm plain-spoken and I'm rude and I'm funny. And I'm writing you a book.' American novelists have been trying to duplicate that voice ever since. Novelists have said ever since then that they owe it all to Mark Twain."
Evening shows take place at 7 p.m., with matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children, and can be purchased at the Stage Company box office Mondays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. or one hour before each performance. For more information, call the Stage Company Box Office at (618) 549-5466. Purchase tickets online at <http://www.StageCompany.org>.