Book-to-stage adaptations are often wooden. Although the Denver Center Theatre Company had great success with Eric Schmiedl's adaptation of Kent Haruf's Plainsong, a novel that reads rather like an unfolding tapestry, its versions of Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird felt like lectures. But playwright Laura Eason has done a terrific job with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Her play has energy and charm, and it really does communicate the fears, uncertainties and joys of childhood, as well as the atmosphere of a rural Missouri town situated beside a powerful river. From the novel, Eason selects lively, significant pieces of dialogue and exactly the right incidents to provide a satisfying dramatic arc, confining the exposition to a few well-chosen phrases so that you never feel you're being read to. She keeps things fluid, often using music and movement to make her point. The actors perform their way through the scene changes, for example, stomp-dancing around the stage and filling what are usually dead intervals with movement and meaning. The Denver Center's extraordinary tech team adds its own transformations — tricks of light and shadow and cleverly constructed pieces of scenery that create a schoolroom, a courtroom, a ride on a raft, the dark cave where Tom and Becky Thatcher spend a terrifying night — all on what at first appears to be nothing but a bare stage with a large book at its center.
It's significant that when Tom and Huck meet in the first scene, Huck is carrying a dead cat: This story is about both the sunshine in the children's lives and the darker currents they encounter and struggle to understand. When Tom and Huck witness a murder, they have a moral decision to make. The killer, Injun Joe, is a vicious thug with no redeeming qualities (he's also an unfortunate representation of the racial prejudices of Twain's time). If the boys tell on him, their lives will be in danger. If they don't, an innocent man — poor, confused Muff Potter — will hang. Yet as they agonize, everyday life continues. Tom falls in love with Becky, squabbles with her, and — in a wonderfully gallant gesture — protects her from the wrath of their schoolmaster and takes her beating on himself.
Every novel has a clock in it, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is no exception. Twain chose to stop the action before his protagonists grew up and lost their innocence, but his evocation of time passing is profound, particularly in the astonishing passage that describes the attempts of Injun Joe — trapped in the cave — to stave off death. Eason wisely keeps this entire speech: "In one place, near at hand, a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherein he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock-tick — a dessertspoonful once in four and twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was 'news.' It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history."
Unfortunately, the acting isn't up to the script: The accents are hokey and the performances so broad that the characters never feel real. When you see Huck dressed in his stifling suit, having been cleaned up by the Widow Douglas, you don't think — as you should — about the contradiction between his absolute freedom as a pauper and the price of being clean, safe, well-fed and civilized. You just laugh. Though the townspeople's response when they believe Tom, Huck and Joe are dead is humorous, the quiet moment when Tom sneaks into the house and kisses his grieving Aunt Polly in her sleep should be touching. It isn't.
Still, the show is bright and fresh enough to send a youngster who hasn't yet encountered Tom Sawyer flying home to read the book. And that is no small achievement.