Saturday, August 14, 2010

Depot: "Big River"

Here's what the best of community theatre is all about: a sold-out run of a classic story, an award-winning musical score, a simple well-made set & costumes, strong direction, and the near perfect casting of an able ensemble drawn from the surrounding community. The Wetumpka Depot Players hit every mark in their current production of "Big River" by Roger Miller and William Hauptman, based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".

The Depot's Artistic Director Kristy Meanor is at the helm of this endeavor, and captures the essence of Twain's themes and characters, inventively stages the numerous scenes, balances rollicking humor with moments of pathos, collaborates with Mary Katherine Moore's clever choreography, and establishes excellent rapport with Marilyn Swears' orchestra and the onstage guitar & harmonica.

In a little over two hours, we are transported "down the Mississippi" on a raft with Huck [Jonathan Conner] and runaway slave Jim [Depot newcomer Darryl Hall] and their adventures interspersed with considerations on the morality of slavery and the degrees of adulthood Huck is forced to confront and conquer in his meetings with some thirty other characters.

Chief among them are Pap Finn, played with inebriated gusto by Tom Salter; Miss Watson [Kim Mason] and the Widow Douglas [Cheryl Jones] whose haughty attempts to both civilize and Christianize Huck prompt him to run away; the good-hearted Mrs. Phelps [Layne Holley] and her husband Silas [Lee Windham] who can't resist making money in the slave-trade; and the con-artists The King [Sam Wallace] and The Duke [Jeff Langham] whose wonderfully comic escapades contribute to the complexity of the plot and whose schemes offer some highlights of entertainment. And Tom Sawyer [David Brown] complicates matters with his insistence on ever-expanding devices in romanticizing their adventures. Even Mark Twain himself takes the stage in Patrick Hale's fine impersonation.

And a lot of the story is told through song: "Do You Wanna Go To Heaven?" , "The Boys", and "Waitin for the Light to Shine" set the tone of adventure; while "Muddy Water" and "The Crossing" target the serious side of matters. Even Pap's drunken tirade "Guvment" connects with many people's critiques of government "interference" in their lives.

The theme of "freedom" is given at least two meanings: Huck wants freedom to go on adventures and not be tied down by the civilizing forces of polite society, a youthful innocent desire; yet when he meets up with the runaway slave Jim, whose freedom is determined by the many people hunting him down, Huck is forced to choose between what he has been schooled to believe -- that slavery is right and that he has an obligation to turn in a runaway -- and what he knows is right -- that every person, regardless of race, is entitled both to freedom and dignity.

All this is told through the individual portrayals. Mr. Conner has made an impression at the Depot in both "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Second Samuel" in which his detailed characterizations and vivacious demeanor connected with audiences; and he continues here as Huck with a character conflicted with important decisions and portrayed with subtle distinctions between self-aware humor and deeply felt morality. -- Mr. Hall's portrayal of Jim is so natural and heart-felt, that he is instantly and consistently believable in the role. -- And the connection between these two actors we watch grow from tentative to complete trust, deeply felt compassion, and an earnest desire to make the world a better place. -- Plus, they can both knock out a rousing song or rivet the audience with a touching version of "Worlds Apart".

Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" is an important piece of American literature; "Big River" provides a modern day interpretation of his masterpiece; the Wetumpka Depot Players are gifting the local community with this excellent production.