The debate about
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
and his negative influence on the minds of the young may swirl on in perpetuity. It is a state of affairs that probably would have left its author, Mark Twain, beaming with pride.
Scott Kaiser's 2005 adaptation of the novel, Splittin' the Raft, teases out Huck's finest moments and themes, and balances them with Frederick Douglass' eloquent observations on the slave trade. With this ingenious adjustment to the tale, there is no question that this People's Light production ought to be required viewing for those who doubt the story's relevance. Yes, the N-word is tossed about as freely as a raft at the Mississippi headwaters, but slavery is a nasty business, and its lingua franca reflects that nastiness.
Douglass, a self-taught former slave, is played by John Douglas Thompson, the same actor who plays Huck's raft-mate, the illiterate runaway slave Jim (and plays both beautifully). With this elision between the characters, we are able to see both the potential in Jim and the potential in Huck. Autonomy is the goal for both escapees, held captive by law and convention, and subject to the whims of their captors. There are few more poignant moments in the play than when Jim declares, "I'm rich now, I own myself. I'm worth $800!"
Douglass' humanistic influence also works as a nice complement to Twain's misanthropy, which is perhaps one reason the two were friends. Twain equates religion with hypocrites who marvel at the Lord's wisdom in appointing one race of men to do the thinking and another to do the working; Douglass recognizes that "he toils that another may be free," and sees the Lord's work in the abolitionist movement.
The cast, led by Susan McKey at her sharpest as Huck, and bolstered by Cathy Simpson and Christopher Patrick Mullen in a variety of roles, powers through the production. Director Jade King Carroll only falters once here, when Huck and Jim pick up the "Duke" and "King," con men whose actions are crucial to the tale, but whose inclusion is played like an afterthought.
The show's most outstanding feature, at least to the sensibilities of my nine-year-old companion, is Arthur R. Rotch's set: a pair of wooden decks that curve like riverbanks on either side of an actual waterway. Huck and Jim dip their toes, paddle downstream, and laze among the hanging sphagnum.
Trouble seems to come whenever the pair sets foot ashore, but the longer they remain afloat, the closer they come to bridging the cultural divide between them.
Adapted from the writings of Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass. Written by Scott Kaiser, directed by Jade King Carroll. Scenery: Arthur R. Rotch. Costumes: Marla J. Jurglanis. Music: Vince Di Mura.
Cast: John Douglas Thompson, Susan McKey, Cathy Simpson, Christopher Patrick Mullen.