A River Runs Deep: Tom Sawyer at WaterTower Theatre

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Tom Sawyer, that lovable Americana scamp icon, springs to life full throttle on WaterTower Theatre’s main stage through February 16, in a true-to-the-novel stage adaptation by Laura Eason, commissioned by Hartford Stage in 2010. It features regional professional Andrews Cope, perfectly cast in the title role, with bold direction by Emily Scott Banks. Well suited for adult and family audiences, WaterTower Theatre’s production uses the full breadth, depth and height of its main stage space to populate a believable, imaginative world with a versatile cast of eight. Recall it fondly from childhood? Hope to tempt a few youngsters into reading the book?  Here’s your golden opportunity.

Andrews Cope as Tom Sawyer. Kelsey Leigh Ervi photo

Andrews Cope as Tom Sawyer. Kelsey Leigh Ervi photo

 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Samuel Clemens’1876 picaresque folk novel for children, written under his pen-name Mark Twain, introduces some of the colorful characters who cascade across his universally celebrated 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Located in the fictional town of St. Petersburg (based on Clemens’ hometown of Hannibal, Missouri), the first novel paints a genial, pastoral snapshot of rural life from the perspective of a clever, high-spirited lad engaged in childhood’s final hi-jinks. Affectionate, humorous, nostalgic, occasionally satirical and irreverent, the novel has earned “best loved status” on children’s bookshelves around the world in the c. 140 years since first publication. It has been adapted for the stage, film, television and ballet multiple times since 1917. The Hartford Stage version remains true to the spirit of the novel while transforming it into viable dramatic form.

Set Designer Michael Sullivan presents a muted-tone, weather-worn world clearly grounded in the mid 19th century but intended for viewing through the lens of 21st century imagination. Cleverly employing a reverse rake effect, the Mississippi River’s edge flows omnipresent, upstage of and lower than most scenes throughout the performance. The imagined, non-literal river nestles, dream-like, between stage right and left wooden structures that add more playing space for the actors in town scenes and transform effortlessly into the cave catacombs lining the river’s banks. Ground level panels slide in and out easily to indicate graveyard or treasure burial locales. Dan Schoedel’s lighting design supports the pervasive “old-timey” aura with natural warmth and creates eerie shadow in the night graveyard scenes and candle-lit catacombs. Twain’s tale’s linearity never slows dramatic transitions thanks to the effectively employed, sophisticated design. WaterTower Theatre’s performance never drags or feels “simplistic” the way many standard “children’s theatre” plays can, as a result.

Director Emily Scott Banks’ able cast gives a fine ensemble performance with several actors dashing through  multiple roles without a moment’s confusion. Andrews Cope inhabits an ebullient Tom Sawyer, mercurial, impassioned and full of mischief. As driver of most of the play’s conflict, he treads a fine line between becoming  genuinely delinquent and acting merely high-spirited. Cope’s Tom acts thoughtlessly but possesses a true loving nature with an honest streak a mile wide. As Tom’s perennial sidekick Huck Finn, lanky, slouching Garrett Storms provides a darker contrast to Tom’s lightheartedness and conveys with ease that tangible awkwardness young men exhibit as they move from childhood towards adulthood, almost in spite of themselves.

Van Quattro as Injun Joe and Jake Buchanan as Joe Harper. Karen Almond photo

Van Quattro as Injun Joe and Jake Buchanan as Joe Harper. Karen Almond photo

Regional professionals Van Quattro, Nancy Sherrard and Tom Lenaghan bring memorable veracity to their several roles. WaterTower newcomers Tabitha Ray,  Jeff Wittekiend and Jake Buchanan fit right in with the seasoned pros, rounding out key scenes and moments with clarity and precision. The tight ensemble reflects well upon the skills of Director Banks to engender this level of focused ease and playfulness. She’s not just a comely drama diva skilled at delivering laugh lines in comedies.

An infectious aura permeates “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”… so earnest, so wholesome and utterly American. Leave the theatre recognizing how well Clemens (Twain) tapped into the kind, hopeful soul of an ambitious, energetic nation here and appreciating WaterTower Theatre’s delightful realization of a defining cornerstone of American literature.

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” runs through February 16, 2014. Costume design by Robin Armstrong and sound design by Jordana Abrenica.

TICKETS:  www.watertowertheatre.org, 972-450-6232

 A version of this review also appears on TheaterJones.com

 

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