British director Greg Banks first adapted Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" for Children's Theatre in March 2007. The revival of that big-hearted production, which opened in Minneapolis over the weekend, is like a campfire story delicately and artfully retold.
Actor Dean Holt plays the adventurous Huck, while Reed Sigmund and Ansa Akyea depict Tom Sawyer and the old slave, Jim, as well a battery of other parts. The performers are aided by musicians Victor Zupanc and Joe Cruz, whose harmonica-inflected, folk music helps set the atmosphere for this transporting piece.
Together, the performing quintet conjures a 19th-century milieu full of the nation's dreaming and contradictions.
The action unfolds on Joe Stanley's simple set of rustic planks and docks which are evocatively lit by Paul Whitaker, and in period costumes created by the late Mary Anna Culligan.
Huck, 14, has some money but lives with a ward in order to escape his drunk, ne'er-do-well father. But his gun-toting dad kidnaps him, taking Huck to a cabin. Huck escapes by faking his own death then makes his way to a refuge on the Mississippi where he finds Jim (Akyea), the runaway slave.
On multiple occasions, Huck, who has privileges accorded by his white skin, must decide whether he wants to do what is right by his heart, which is to help Jim gain his freedom, or do right by the law and turn Jim in.
In his adaptation, Banks softens the edges of a historically revealing text that shows the nation's long struggle to live up to its creed. As both director and adapter, Banks makes astute choices in telescoping the conflicts in the story. He also omits some elements of Twain's book that have caused people to get stuck, including the liberal use of the N-word. Still, some things in Twain come through without a sense of irony or satire, including the notion of Jim as a superstitious simpleton.
At the top of the play, Huck and his best friend Tom play a trick on sleeping Jim, who wakes up believing that he has been literally bewitched.
The acting company is pitch perfect. It manages to deliver us to a shadowy time and show us characters we relate to.
Holt is an actor of emotional depth and broad talent. His Huck is a figure with malice toward none and openness to all, including con men. His playfulness and lack of guile, even when Huck is playing tricks on people, makes it easy to understand and identify with him.
Sigmund also is a smart performer who uses both his physicality and gestures to quickly distinguish his characters, especially happy-go-lucky Tom and Huck's sneering and abusive father.
Akyea also deploys tonal and gestural shifts to draw his characters, including a con man as well as a young woman. But his strongest portrayal is of Jim, a character of contained dignity and a bridled heart.
If his Jim also has unrealized power, it's partly a reflection of his society. Jim needs allies to free himself, and a plucky teenager, not yet hardened by bias, can help him fulfill his own promise, and that of a young nation.