Book-It’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored”

Geoffery Simmons as Jim and Christopher Morson as Huck in Book-It’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored.” The play runs through May 12, 2013. Click the picture for more info. Photo by Alan Alabastro.

I should say at the outset that I’m simultaneously a biased and an unbiased reviewer for this show. Biased because my roommate was the dramaturg for the production; unbiased because, well . . .

When the house lights came up for intermission, I leaned over to tell Alex how much I was enjoying it and congratulate him on how good the show was. “And now we come to the second act,” he said, “which I like to describe as being like if the Mississippi suddenly ended in Niagra Falls.”

“So is this the part where I confess that I’ve never actually read Huck Finn?”

“I kind of figured judging by your reactions.”

Wishbone the dog relaxing on a stack of classic Western novels.

You don’t understand how traumatized I was when I found out that most versions of “Faust” end with Faust being dragged to Hell. It was really bad.

So yes. This is the problem with having gone to a weird alternative secondary school (and to a lesser extent a weird gifted elementary school where Jerry Spinelli and Lois Lowry were required reading): I may have read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in eighth grade, Howard Zinn and “By the Waters of Babylon” in tenth, and Black Elk Speaks senior year, but I only read standard novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when we got a new, older, more conservative teacher who clearly desperately wanted to inject some established order into the school and realized she could only get people to sign up for her class by making it about books that had been adapted into movies. And then I went to college and read Elizabethan/Jacobean plays for four years. In short, for someone with an undying interest in the written word, I’m kind of hilariously illiterate, and my exposure to a lot of classics is more thanks to Wishbone than anything.

So I went into Book-It’s production of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored prepped to enjoy it, because my friend had worked on it, and with almost no idea of what I was getting into.

Here’s what I did know: I knew, thanks to Fred Clark, that I wanted to hear the line “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” And I knew, of course, that Huckleberry Finn is a perpetually embattled book due to the word “nigger” and the book’s alleged racism. It’s one of the most frequently challenged books in the American school system. In 2011 a new edition of the book was published in which the racial slur was changed to “slave” so that teachers would feel more comfortable teaching the book.

If I had to guess, I’d say that that edition, specifically, answers the dramaturg’s question of “Why this play now?” Huckleberry Finn is evidently a passion project for director Jane Jones and adapter Judd Parkin, but it seems clear that NewSouth’s “slave” edition of the book served as the impetus to get the play into the season. Given that the controversy over NewSouth’s edition sprang up in spring 2011, Book-It might have been better served from a marketing perspective to put the play into their 2011-12 season rather than producing it two years later — but a) I know season decisions are usually made way too far in advance to take advantage of unexpected controversies like that, b) better late than never, and c) it’s not like Huckleberry Finn isn’t always being challenged somewhere and isn’t always going to be controversial.

And here’s the thing, the wonderful thing, the surprising thing: Book-It’s Uncensored title doesn’t just apply to the language. Jones and Parkin, along with their talented cast, highlight all kinds of things that make us uncomfortable as a society, things we don’t like to think about, from religious hypocrisy to governmental hypocrisy to domestic violence to racism to — most uncomfortably and fundamentally of all — every person’s own tendency towards cowardice. And it’s amazing.

The play opens with the shocking sound of a slap in the dark. The lights come up on Huck (Christopher Morson) being thrown around the stage by Pop (Russell Hodgkinson); Pop grabs Huck by the lapels and hits him several more times, threatening him with worse and demanding that Huck turn over his money. It’s a starkly, darkly theatrical scene, made all the more jarring by a sudden transition to the cheerful and familiar opening lines of the novel: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. 

The play moves along at a pretty good clip, aided by Andrew D. Smith’s effective lighting design and Andrea Bryn Bush’s brilliantly simple set design; the central platform of the stage transforms from the stable floor of Pop’s cabin into a freely rotating, wobbling raft when the actors remove the supports, then back into dry land, houses, and stages. Like you’d expect — if you’d never read the book, like me — a lot of the play is taken up with episodes along the river, most of them comedic.

But there’s a current of seriousness and darkness running throughout Huck and Jim’s adventures, even the funny ones, a current that grows stronger in the second act. There’s an extended scene where Huck spies on the crew of a riverboat as two men — styling themselves as the Child of Calamity and the Corpse Maker — bellow and roar and stomp around the stage spoiling for a fight that, naturally, never actually happens, because their captain smacks them both upside the head and calls them out as cowards.

And its this theme of cowardice and bravery that provides the two strongest moments of the second act. Huck bears witness as the ensemble threaten to lynch Evan Crockett’s Colonel Sherburn — and as Sherburn disdainfully, matter-of-fact-ly tells the mob:

You didn’t want to come. The average man don’t like trouble and danger. YOU don’t like trouble and danger. But if only HALF a man — like Buck Harkness, there — shouts ‘Lynch him! lynch him!’ you’re afraid to back down — afraid you’ll be found out to be what you are — COWARDS — and so you raise a yell, and hang yourselves on to that half-a-man’s coat-tail, and come raging up here, swearing what big things you’re going to do. … Now the thing for YOU to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching’s going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion; and when they come they’ll bring their masks, and fetch a MAN along. Now LEAVE — and take your half-a-man with you.

(The play unquestionably belongs to Christopher Morson’s Huck, and much is made of Peter Jacobs’ hilarious turn as a wild pig, but this speech by Crockett gave me shivers.)

The second moment, of course, is Huck wrestling with his conscience. Jones has three members of the ensemble act on and off as what she calls Huck’s “Underground Railroad,” a chorus that shares his monologues, offers advice, and physically assists in pantomimes. But this speech is Morson’s moment. He struggles to pray, bouncing nervously between throwing himself on the ground to write his letter to the Widow Douglas, pacing and thinking out loud, kneeling center stage and trying as hard as he can to pray. You could’ve heard a pin drop in the theater on Saturday afternoon as he built up to the line I’d been waiting for: All right, then, I’ll go to hell!

I am told by people who, you know, have read the book, that the rest of the play deviates significantly from the novel, mainly in that Huck rescues Jim without Tom Sawyer ever making an appearance. They make their way home and the loose ends are all neatly tied up: Pop is dead, Miss Watson is dead, Jim is free, Huck is richer than ever and ready to light out for the territories. The play ends with the cast leading the audience in a rousing rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” which The Stranger didn’t like very much but whatever, I’m a sucker for that song and I don’t care who knows it.

The play left me itching to talk, as you can tell by the fact that this review is about to break 1500 words and still hasn’t hit on all my incoherent thoughts about the production and the story, and the wonderful discussion with three renowned Twain scholars that followed the performance only whetted my appetite.

More importantly, the show left me itching to read the book. Because hey — better late than never.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored runs at the Center Theatre through May 12 and tickets are going fast. For more information, visit Book-It’s website.

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