Enter Chicago’s silent movie-era Mercury Theater, take in Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s river bank set, listen to the opening strings of Roger Miller’s score, and settle in for a night of folksy Americana…
Actually, you shouldn’t.
This is Big River, adapted from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a book by William Hauptman and country/bluegrass music by Miller. Twain didn’t etch indelible characters into the literary canon through comfortable storytelling. On the Penrods’ revolve-mounted raft, amid netting-draped beams that seem to float to the sky, Twain’s rough universe plays out. We don’t see any water or drifting debris in this production. But as directed by Christopher Chase Carter with what strikes this writer as a firm, light hand, we feel their impact. Human beings create a lot of brokenness.
Clear Choices in Mercury Theater’s Big River
We get right to the show’s moral dilemmas in the opening number, Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven? The townspeople of St. Petersburg, Missouri join Huck’s guardians Widow Douglas and Miss Watson to present Huck with a choice: Will he be an illiterate loafer like his drunkard father Pap Finn or an educated Bible reader? Whether it’s heaven or hell, water or land, upstream or downstream, freedom or slavery, individualism or conformity, Big River gives shape to Twain’s episodic novel as only musical theater can – tautly and melodically.
However clear the choices might seem to contemporary audiences, the moral waters of the antebellum South are not. If your father is a bully, do you still need to honor him? Is it wrong to protect yourself from wrongdoers by doing wrong yourself? Can a person consider himself virtuous if failure to report a fugitive slave is considered a sin? And what about stealing money from thieves who stole it in the first place? The vibrant ensemble jumps in and out of characters whose ethics vary as much as their vocal ranges, pulling Huck back and forth.
Powerful lead actors in BIG RIVER
Central to the story is the friendship that could not have formed on land – between Huck and Miss Watson’s runaway slave Jim – as they find themselves on a raft together, sharing smokes and escape plans. In Muddy River, they sing:
…I got a need for going some place
And I got a need to climb upon your back and ride…
A BFA student at Chicago College of Performing Arts, Eric Amundson immediately makes us care about Huck, in this reviewer’s opinion. The same can be said for his co-lead Curtis Bannister whose acting credits are national in scope. Bannister’s towering stature and voice convey the tiny margins of an enslaved black man’s life while Huck views his own options on a grand scale simply because he is white.
The glories of their Muddy River duet and the nascent bond that it expresses don’t last long. A dense fog throws them off course and two con artists play upon Huck’s loyalty to Jim. No line of dialogue is needed when Huck goes off with Duke and King at the close of Act I. Everything can be found in Jim’s face.
Act II’s adventures continue to test Huck’s moral fiber as much as it continues to provide a showcase of engaging performances by the rest of the cast. For just about anyone who appreciates a good show, Mercury Theater’s Big River delivers Twain’s rough universe as a folk, not folksy, story of America.
APRIL 21 – JUNE 11, 2023
Mercury Theater Chicago
3745 N Southport Avenue
Chicago, Il 60613
About the Author: Susan Lieberman
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.