Eugene Weekly : Theater : 11.12.2009


River in the Psyche
UO Theatre’s musical Huck Finn swirls through currents of U.S. history
by Suzi Steffen

The rollicking fun of UO Theatre’s Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deals with exactly the problem Mark Twain’s most famous book sets out. That is to say, unless they’re pesky, problematized Stephen Sondheim productions, musicals — like “those adventure books” that Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer (Colin Lawrence) likes so much — traditionally present narratives that end tidily.

The King (Sam Greenspan) and the Duke (John Jeffery) love flimflammery. Photo by Ariel Ogden

Comfortable narratives create lacunae and gaps, ignore those who don’t fit right in, leave people out in the cold metaphorically and literally. So Huck’s story has always been: Huck (Stevo Clay), himself an outlier in St. Petersburg, Mo. (known in real life as Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal), takes control of his own story and takes off on a raft. But the Mississippi River is bigger than Huck’s dreams of escape from his drunken Pappy (Richard Leebrick, who walks the thin edges of melodrama and slapstick to perfection) and the pieties of the Widow Douglas (Laura M. Robinson) and Miss Watson (Alexis Schaetzle). 

The river, just like the tossing rush of time and other people’s desires, rolls on, full of messy, teeming life. That includes the endangered life of Jim (Nathan Wagoner, who certainly has a strong voice), a runaway slave who wants to buy himself, his wife and their two kids out of slavery. Reading the book, one gets the feeling that Twain (whose nom de plume came from his time working on Mississippi steamboats) both wanted the pre-Civil War river back — it was much wilder, less tame, before the Army Corps of Engineers went after it — and understood how wrong that “wildness,” in which commerce depended largely on slavery, would be for the country’s African-American population. Yes, the river stands for freedom (“River in the Rain”), but the river also carries and constrains human cargo as “The Crossing,” sung with depth and beauty by UO freshman Shenea Davis, shows.

The picaresque pieces of Huck Finn transform beautifully onto the stage, as do crowd scenes like the opening montage, the gorgeously syncopated “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” Dance prof Walter Kennedy deserves credit for the physical energy of that scene (and a couple of other lovely stagings), in which Huck feels pressed and oppressed by nearly everyone in his town, including Tom Sawyer. Tom’s taste for adventure-book violence doesn’t mean much to Huck, who knows real pain and starvation with his alcoholic father. His Pappy’s violence, which threatens Huck physically and emotionally, doesn’t come through in the musical as much as in the book, but that’s what forces Huck away and onto the old muddy water.

Huck’s is essentially a young adult story, similar to the tale of Pinnochio in some ways: Leave the parents or parental figures, have adventures, deal with moral choices, figure out how to live in a tricky world. But Jim’s is an adult story, a narrative full of agony, grief, desperate hope and courage. Where their tales clash, the musical, like the book, bumps into itself, its lines tangled. What is Jim experiencing when two white shysters (the energetic John Jeffery and Sam Greenspan) tie him up every day as they bilk three young white women out of their inheritance? We don’t know (though “Worlds Apart” gets at it a tiny bit), but this neglect of Jim’s narrative nags at a modern audience member more than it ever would at Twain or his peers. Hence, Huck doesn’t worry too much about Jim — until he’s gone.

Director John Schmor, who has spent some time in Missouri himself, writes in his director’s note that the musical is far more faithful to the thread of the book than movies have been. True, and as Schmor also says, that leaves the audience with the troubling end — a paper-thin gloss, the easy lie, over the idea of freedom for Jim having any larger meaning. 

The director, cast, chorus, musicians and artistic staff all deserve kudos for their work, which fairly crackles with high spirits and a high level of skill. After the audience claps its way through “Muddy Water” and “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” we in Oregon know that Huck’s “lighting out for the West” won’t mean an escape from the various tragic (but occasionally redemptive) narratives of race relations in our history.

Big River continues through Nov. 21 at the Robinson Theatre on the UO campus. Tix at 346-4363.