One of the many benefits that Lexington Children's Theatre offers young audiences is programming that balances classic and contemporary works.
LCT's latest production, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is a fresh adaptation of an American classic.
Sharp and engaging performances by a trio of actors combined with cleverly efficient design elements make this play an enjoyable introduction to Twain's iconic tale.
Set in the 1840s in small-town Missouri, the adaptation by LCT producing director Larry Snipes hits all the high points of Tom's adventures, including witnessing a murder, gate-crashing his own funeral and finding buried treasure.
Snipes keeps the language and tone of Twain's storytelling alive by retaining the rural vernacular of the time. While it takes a few minutes for modern ears to adjust to the colloquialisms of more than 170 years ago, director Octavia Biggs carefully weaves context clues into the fabric of the production to make the language more accessible. Young and old alike soon understand that words like bully were used entirely differently in early American slang. The language isn't the only aspect of early American life to seem a bit foreign. The rough and tumble culture can seem downright shocking to 21st-century sensibilities. Apparently swinging a dead rat on a string was a delightful pastime for Tom and his buddies.
Though to be fair, maybe times haven't changed all that much, as I overheard the little boy sitting next to me whisper "I want one of those" as Michael Whitten's Sawyer swirled the stiff rodent prop with swagger.
Whitten and castmates Jim Short and Ashley Isenhower deserve praise for bringing Tom, Huck and their friends and foes to life with rustic charm. Whitten nails the bemused and spirited nature that makes Sawyer a legendary adventurer. Isenhower particularly demonstrates versatility in her performance, transforming from protective Aunt Polly to pirate cohort Joe Harper to sweetheart Becky to the very politically incorrectly named Injun Joe, among others. And Short functions as the glue that holds disparate elements of the plot together with sharply defined renderings of eight supporting characters, including Huckleberry Finn.
With quick onstage costume and character changes, the trio tell a tale much larger than the relatively simple set and string of dangling aprons and cloaks suggest.
Jerome Wills and Eric Abele's respective scenic and costume designs are built for maximum efficiency, which helps to keep the pace of the truncated novel-turned-play clipping along.
It's worth noting that Tom Sawyer skews for older children and includes some violence. However, hearing the language of pioneer era America and seeing its culture come alive onstage is an excellent way for mature young readers to begin to explore Twain's writings.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.