Laura Eason is a rising star of American theater. She has been a bright light for several years, especially in Chicago, where she was Artistic Director of the innovative Lookingglass Theater Company; now, with this play on its way to New York, she looks poised to gain the wider recognition her work clearly deserves. Tom Sawyer, her innovative and charming adaptation of the novel everybody knows even if they haven't read it, had its inception at Hartford Stage a year ago. The current production started in Louisville, and after its engagement in St. Louis will continue with the same cast to Kansas City and then New York.
Miss Eason has stuck to the bones of the story with admirable fidelity, but created almost her own genre of stage performance with a flowing, swirling physical style that effectively integrates dance with drama. The original music for the play, by Broken Chord, is both dramatically powerful and musically fascinating. The cast, in which almost all of the actors double, needs to be physically fit to keep up with the energy and the pace of the movement.
Given that this cast has been together through one run already, it should come as no surprise that they are comfortable in their characters, or that they work flawlessly togethernot always an easy assignment, given the occasional complexity of the choreography. After the first ten minutes there is no problem looking past the obvious age difference between actor and character and accepting Tim McKiernan as a boyish Tom, or Hayley Treider as the demure Becky Thatcher. Michael D. Nichols is powerful as the dark, wronged but definitely villainous Injun Joe; his looming presence gives the story just the right edge of real danger. Nance Williamson is properly exasperated as Tom's longsuffering Aunt Polly. If there's one touch from the novel that I missed, it is the short, vivid picture of Aunt Polly with which Twain opens the story, but Miss Williamson gives the character the spark of life. Robbie Tann is so thoroughly likeableand matureas Huckleberry Finn that it is hard indeed to see why Aunt Polly and the society of the town in general are down on him. Justin Fuller as Joe Harper, Joseph Adams as the hapless Muff Potter, and Nate Trinrud, who does a fine job of sliding from the odious Sid into the hapless Doc Robinson, round out a fine ensemble.
The excellent music to one side, production values arefor want of a better wordefficient almost to a fault. The set by Daniel Ostling has a dozen or so moving parts. Central to the stage is an elevated platform in two sections, one side of which, courtesy of a virtuoso bit of lighting by Robert M. Wierzel, serves beautifully as the fence in the charming whitewashing scene. Later, the platform delineates part of the cave, a wall of the church, the courthouse, and so on. Ladders, benches, and an intricate low platform that can become a grave or a hiding place for treasure complete an effectively portable production. Lorraine Venberg's costumes are convincingly of the period, but predictable, which the remainder of this production is emphatically not.
My favorite moment of the evening came when the young man (maybe nine years old) in the row behind us gripped the top of the empty seat next to me with both hands, his eyes as big as saucers, as he watched the very scary moments in the cave unfold. He was totally engrossed, and that's as good a compliment as I can think of for both the Rep and for Miss Eason.
Tom Sawyer will run through December 23 on the Browning Mainstage at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. For ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.