The current production of Virginia Repertory Theatre’s Children’s Theatre, “Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi,” is an action-packed, fast-paced, humorous musical that takes young audiences on a whirlwind tour of the world and personalities brought into being by that quintessential American writer Mark Twain.
The action begins with an introduction by the cast’s five actors, who will bring this engaging and enchanting realm to life. The panoply of stories will be depicted from simple sets and props; the center of which is a large platform that convincingly transforms to everything from a picket-fenced yard, to a Sunday school classroom, to a haunted graveyard, to a freedom-bound river raft. At the back of the stage, a giant map of the meandering Mississippi from its branch at the Ohio River through the Southern states, is a reminder of the river’s constant presence and the role it played in the lives of so many people.
The cast explains that what follows will be just highlights of best-loved scenes with the townsfolk and rascals conjured up by Twain and that the full adventures of all are available to take home from the local libraries. The narrators talk about the importance of knowing how to read—and that includes learning how to “read the river,” declaring that “every river has a story” and “has a different story every day.” The message hailing the wonderful world of literature is echoed throughout the show and is underscored by the entry point for the actors who emerge from larger-than-life books displayed at the back of the stage.
The stories open with the iconic tale of Tom Sawyer, who, when faced with the daunting task of whitewashing his Aunt Polly’s (Caitlin Sneed) fence, uses not his labor but his cunning and an intuitive understanding of human nature to accomplish the job. Tom (James Hendley) dupes nearly every kid in town to not only do his work but even to pay him for the privilege by pretending that it was great fun and acting hesitant to yield his paintbrush. He sums up his success with Twain-style brevity and humor: “The trick to make a person covet something is to make it hard to attain!”
Tom’s delightful audacity is further displayed as he woos a newfound love, Becky Thatcher (Rachel Jones), in the midst of the Sunday school classroom. His rambunctious spirit and quest for adventure rolls into high gear when he encounters his friend and mischievous mentor Huck Finn (Joel White)—the imaginative, spirited vagabond who is admired by the young and feared by the adults of the town. From their first spittin’-serious, blood-brothers secret handshake, it’s clear that the two are about to engage in some daring ventures. The first involves spending a night amidst terrifying tombstones, as they consider what the deceased would be thinking of their presence in the graveyard.
The entrance of Huck’s character transitions the action to a second book, the “Adventures of Huck Finn”—with tales that move from lighthearted shenanigans to some of the most poignant issues that confronted our nation—both in Twain’s era and today—encapsulated in the evolving friendship between the boy and an escaping slave, Jim (Alvan Bolling II). One of the most enchanting scenes features the fellow fugitives, drifting down the vast Mississippi, observing the deep night sky and hypothesizing how the stars came to be—a conversation that included the possibility that they had been “laid like eggs by the moon.”
Other scenes may elicit laughter from the audience as Huck conducts an information-gathering mission ashore in the guise of a girl. And audiences may applaud Huck’s quick-witted genius when he tricks a pursuing villager in search of the fugitive slave into fleeing from an imagined small-pox danger. Yet the most memorable and moving scene of all involves Tom’s soliloquy as his heartfelt conscience wrestles with the rules and laws of the era and he determines that he will stand by Jim, regardless of what he is convinced will be his eternal damnation.
In addition to the powerful message of this climax and the continuing encouragement for children to continue their imaginative adventures through reading, director Kikau Alvaro hopes that the production will spark a desire among young audiences to explore and experience the world of nature that surrounds us.
“I hope they will be inspired to turn off the TVs and games and just go outside and play,” he said. “I want them to walk away thinking about a time when kids would run around barefoot and be outdoors and that, even if their imaginations got the best of them during those adventures, it was OK!” he said.