The cast of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company have discovered the perfect recipe for childlike wonder: say or do something completely ridiculous with utter sincerity. That technique, almost on its own, made me accept that most of the characters on stage were meant to be around 12 years old. It helps that Laura Eason’s script weaves storytelling into the adaptation—the actors begin and end several scenes by narrating with Mark Twain’s peerless prose. We join Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as they debate the merits of various methods of treating warts. Huck’s method involves using a split bean, some blood and a crossroads. Tom’s involves a dead cat and the fresh grave of somebody wicked. That’s we he recently bought a dead cat and is carrying it around in a sack. These explanations are delivered by completely straight faces.
When Tom gets home, he’s late for dinner with his Aunt Polly and his brother Sid. Miranda McGee has perhaps one of the most challenging responsibilities in this production, as she portrays both Aunt Polly and one of the children in St. Petersburg, MO. As Aunt Polly, she’s one of two characters (the other being the schoolmaster) who is not only an adult but serves as a representative for the entire concept of adulthood. Later, she has to shed that veneer altogether to become a child. McGee is up to the task, playing both sides of the coin without missing a beat.
Sid is a completely different animal. He’s an archetype of the tattle-tale sibling, which is certainly no accident—Mark Twain wrote in the preface to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” that “part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked.” If you didn’t have a Sid in your childhood, you were the Sid in someone else’s. Justin McCombs, wearing perfectly outrageous knee breeches and a perfectly calm (but somehow still childish) expression, owns this role. He follows table manners to the letter, voluntarily leans his cheek in to be pinched, and points out everything he finds that can get Tom in trouble. You can tell he relishes knowing his brother will be punished.
Tom’s punishment is the classic scene where he’s made to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence. This is where Cary Davenport truly proves himself the right fit for Tom Sawyer. The sounds of a sunny Saturday afternoon are all around him, including the sounds of his friends playing without him. He moves as though his arms are made of iron and his life is weighing heavily on his shoulders. With each stroke of the brush, he sighs and his lip quivers. This is no adult impression of a whining child. To Tom Sawyer, this isn’t an inconvenience, it’s an injustice that pushes him to the brink of despair. That moment, all the way through Tom’s realization of a basic tenet of human nature (“in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain”), ranks among the finest representations of the human condition I’ve seen on stage, largely because it approaches life from the perspective of a child.
Tom’s interactions with Becky Thatcher are nearly as powerful, for the same reason. Neither of them understand anything about the dynamics of relationships between men and women. They know just enough to get angry when things aren’t quite following the right pattern. Caitlin McWethy expresses terrific girlish outrage, frustrating Tom when he treats her with any less than the same devotion he asks of her. Their relationship is adorable, made even more so when Huck Finn complains that it’s getting in the way of their adventures.
Tom, Huck and their friends experience the kind of adventures every child should experience, though perhaps a bit more literally than some. If you spent any time in your youth hunting for treasure, solving mysteries, completely missing the point of romance or just generally exploring your world, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” will tug at some of your more nostalgic heartstrings.
For me, it brought an old memory to the surface of my friend and his brother telling me they found a rat in their neighborhood. No ordinary rat, they claimed: a big one, and intelligent. He came from the sewer as a scout for the Rat King, who had plans to take over the neighborhood. I came over with wooden swords acquired from the Renaissance Festival and we drew a map of the sewer, marking where we thought the Rat King’s lair was. No such sewer existed anywhere near the neighborhood. We went to sleep after devising our plans. I went home in the morning. We mentioned the plan on the bus for the next week or so, then moved on. I hadn’t thought about that imagined adventure in years. Last night, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company gave it back to me, and I have to thank them for it.
If you want to relive your own childhood adventures, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” runs through December 9.
Zach Moning is the communications manager at ArtsWave. Reach him here with questions or comments about ArtsWave Guide.