By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Tom Sawyer was quite the little pickup artist. "D'ya like dead rats?" he says to the new girl in town, Becky Thatcher. She doesn't, but she does take a shine to Tom, America's pre-Bart Simpson symbol of boyhood mischief.
Be re-introduced to Tom and his dead-rat-and-dead-cat-swinging pals Huck Finn, Joe Harper, Muff Potter and others in WaterTower Theatre's thoroughly charming and cleverly staged The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, now running in Addison. Emily Scott Banks has directed this production, with eight actors playing all the major characters in Mark Twain's 1876 story, adapted in this 2010 version by playwright Laura Eason.
In under two hours, Eason weaves in all the major story points, from Tom's tricking his friends into whitewashing the fence for him to the graveyard murder, Tom and Becky's exploration of the cave, Tom and Huck witnessing their own funeral after they're presumed dead, and scenes in the schoolhouse, courthouse and on Aunt Polly's porch. Scenic designer Michael Sullivan fills one end of WaterTower's barnlike space with a pliable two-level set full of wide planks of raw lumber and sheets of corrugated tin. Things move easily, turning staircases into a raft on the Mississippi and a muslin curtain into a view of the river snaking off into the far distance. Lighting by Dan Schoedel gives us the shadowy caves and the flickers of a campfire under a shimmering moon. It's a beautiful production from every angle.
The cast, all adults playing children and grown-ups, includes some of the best character actors on Dallas-area stages. In the title role, Andrews W. Cope swings barefoot over the "river" on a rope, all youthful spit and vinegar. Cope might remind you of a young Matthew Broderick — without the slumpy laxness — because his Tom Sawyer, always on the prowl for a new adventure, never comes across as mean. He's just a sweet, fun kid, wide-eyed and easily distracted by a pretty girl or a reason to play hooky.
As Huckleberry Finn, Garret Storms sports the high cheekbones of a fashion model, and the shiny shoulder-length hair to frame them. But he's good as Huck and he's done his homework perfecting a Southern accent that sounds authentically quaint. Nancy Sherrard's loving but stern Aunt Polly is delightful and funny.
Jeff Wittekiend, as Tom's stuck-up cousin Sid, provides the right stiff counterbalance to the rough-and-tumble boys who won't play with him. Tabitha Ray is shy Becky Thatcher, eager to get "engaged" to Tom via a kiss on the cheek, and then horrified to learn he's two-timed her with another girl.
Suitable for kids, highly recommended as a family night of theater, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains loyal to the sound and style of its source without getting bogged down in too many details. It's also a glimpse back to a time in American life when you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a nice young boy swinging a dead cat.