Laura Eason and her brand of fast-paced page-to-stage theatrical adaptations should be well-known to Kansas City audiences at this point: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer marks her third go-round here, after Arabian Nights in 2009 and Around the World in 80 Days in 2010. And though the current show reads more like a theatre-for-young-audiences production than many artistic director Eric Rosen’s presented here, it’s a charming, undemanding, and, in a quirky way, faithful showing of the Twain work.
Identifying Eason’s trademark style from the get-go is a bit of whirlwind choreography in which the entire cast dart in, about and around the deceivingly minimal stage, each establishing his personality. As the appealingly hucksterish title character is Tim McKiernan, all messy red hair and “aw, gee-wiz” grins. The object of his affection, Becky Thatcher (Hayley Treider), pulls off girlish innocence without the smarm—no mean feat—and Aunt Polly (Nance Williamson) provides a sweet yet stern influence.
As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that Eason’s managed to limn the vital aspects of Twain’s coming-of-age tale: the dangers of sloth and deception, the importance of solving moral dilemmas and doing the right thing, the pitfalls of immediate gratification.
All those lessons are brought out via Twain’s indelible plotlines—the vengeful stabbing of Doc Robertson by Injun Joe; the charming after-school courtship of Becky by Tom; and, of course, the trickery Tom uses to get out of the famed whitewashing of the fence. All of these scenarios are timeless Americana, and for the most part Eason manages to pull them off without awkwardness.
What does at times become awkward is the breathless pace of the piece, which has the actors nearly running between scenes as they roll in set pieces, bound up and down stairways and manhandle the clever mannequins designed to populate the church scenes. It’s as if the whole thing becomes a desperate race of exposition, and the cast, however able, can barely keep up with it all.
But somehow, they do manage to keep up, helped by Jeremy B. Cohen’s fluid direction and madcap blocking. Also helping in this regard is Daniel Ostling’s set design, which appears deceptively simple but is in fact immensely effective in unfolding the vignettes, especially when Tom and Becky become lost in the cave. And Robert Wierzel’s clever lighting design shines when it’s used to illustrate the fence painting by illuminating the whitewashing slat by slat.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer plays the Kansas City Repertory Theater’s Spencer Stage on the UMKC campus through February 12. For tickets contact the theater’s ticketing services at (816)235-2700 or visit its website at kcrep.org.