Review: Brotherly Love in a Cruel Country 

Why Big River and Huck Finn still resonate

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Brandon Dahlquist

BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

"It is a great work of our national literature," writes George Saunders in his introduction to the 2001 Modern Library edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "because, more than any book before or since, it locates itself squarely on our National Dilemma, which is: How can anyone be truly free in a country as violent and stupid as ours? The book still lives, because the question does."

In the midst of our current social turmoil and political hysteria, Mark Twain's 1884 novel resonates more than ever. Its central story—about an American teenager wrestling with the astonishing notion that his presumptions of white racial superiority might just be dead wrong—could be an Obama-era allegory. And its scathing satirical portrait of Bible-thumping con artists is just the right tonic for a dose of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

But there's another reason for the novel's enduring power: the love story at the tale's heart, the brotherly bond that evolves between two outcasts, white-trash Huck and escaped slave Jim, who team up to flee fictitious Saint Petersburg, Missouri, by rafting the Mississippi.

Jim seeks liberty in the free state of Illinois, and Huck wants to get away from his alcoholic, abusive father and the god-fearing foster mother who intends to "sivilize" him. Along the way they're joined by two scoundrels—the so-called Duke and King, who force the runaways to assist them in their nefarious schemes, including a plot to swindle a bereaved family out of their property. Over the course of rollicking, increasingly dangerous adventures, Huck and Jim forge a kinship, which is finally cemented when Huck plays a mean trick on Jim and then—against every inclination bred in him by growing up white in 1840s Missouri—works up the strength to "humble myself to a nigger" and apologize.

Bohemian Theatre Ensemble's warm, stirring revival of the 1985 musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is strikingly successful in preserving both the novel's warm emotional core and its stinging satire. Playwright William Hauptman deftly trimmed the plot without watering it down and Nashville star Roger Miller crafted a superb set of country-gospel tunes that reflect the unique nature of antebellum southern life, in which blacks and whites shared a culture despite their cruel social divide. And by having Huck narrate the action in story-theater style, they preserve some of Twain's wittiest prose while giving the actor playing Huck the opportunity to reveal his character's emotional growth.

The show accents the novel's brief suggestion of a romantic attraction between Huck and Mary Jane Wilkes—daughter of the family the Duke and King want to rob—but doesn't expand on it. The closest Miller comes to a love song, the haunting "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go," is a trio for Huck, Mary Jane, and Jim. (Traditionalists can rest easy: Big River steers clear of the homoerotic undercurrents identified by literary critic Leslie Fiedler in his controversial 1948 essay, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!")

In its original Broadway run, Big River featured a 21-member cast and sweeping scenic design that included a moving raft and a sprawling backdrop of the river. BoHo, which has made a specialty of remounting Broadway shows in vest-pocket productions, has reduced the ensemble to 12 by casting actors in multiple roles; the set, by Judy Radovsky and Anders Jacobson, consists of a plain, stationary platform in front of a hand-painted map of the Mississippi. The rustic quality is enhanced by Sarah Putnam's simple costumes and the offstage sounds of roosters crowing and dogs barking. Accompaniment is provided by a band playing guitar, banjo, fiddle, upright bass, harmonica, and washboard. The musicians are also cast members, and the acoustic vocals are excellent, adding to the down-home feel of this intimate, moving production.

Andrew Mueller and Brian-Alwyn Newland head the ensemble as Huck and Jim. Mueller looks a mite old for the role of the raffish 14-year-old, but that doesn't matter when he picks up his guitar to accompany himself on the poignantly hopeful hymn, "Waitin' for the Light to Shine." And his thin, nasal country tenor melds beautifully with Newland's ripe gospel baritone in the aching duet "Worlds Apart," which foreshadows the inevitable separation between Jim, who plans to head north and make enough money to buy his wife and children's freedom, and Huck, who intends to "light out for the Territory" west of the river.

Among the supporting cast, Courtney Crouse is comically over-the-top as Tom Sawyer, providing contrast to Huck's simple humanity, Anna Hammonds sings beautifully as Mary Jane, and John Leen and Sean Thomas are both funny and scary as the Duke and the King—initially lovable rogues whose ruthlessness imperils the heroes.

The rapport between Mueller and Newland feels honest and nuanced under Peter Marston Sullivan's skillful direction. This bumptious, tender rendition provides a tentative answer to the national dilemma of Saunders's essay: In a country as violent and stupid as ours, the only way anyone can be truly free is through courage, sacrifice, and love.

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