Residents with a spare hour this weekend could find less enjoyable ways to spend it than by watching a competent cast of middle-school thespians perform Eric Coble's Huck Finn at Oddfellows Playhouse.
The playwright has referred to his theatrical adaptation and condensation of Mark Twain's classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as "my short play." He does not exaggerate.
Just over 60 minutes passed between the initial dimming of the lights to begin the production and the final bows by the sixteen-member cast from the Junior Repertory Company. The elapsed time included an intermission of at least 15 minutes.
Still, the action during the pair of abbreviated acts was lively and fully commanded the audience's attention. Protagonist Finn helps friend Jim escape from slavery — twice — as he launches his raft upon the Mississippi River, picks up other castaways, flees angry mobs, dodges bullets, hacks out underground escape passages, cross-dresses to disguise himself, steals money back from thieves, and impersonates pal Tom Sawyer — while Sawyer pretends to be his own cousin in order to maintain the ruse.
In the process, Finn grapples with his own nature and sense of right-and-wrong. He is told repeatedly by adults that he is "bad," a lesson that he has deeply internalized and causes him to second-guess his actions on Jim's behalf. Yet, he ultimately decides that he would rather be "no good" than fail to interdict an action that seems so wrong to him, the enslavement of his good friend.
The brightest star on the stage was clearly leading man Seamus Doyle of Durham. Not only did his Finn have by far the most dialogue, he also functioned as the play's narrator, yet the actor never once stammered or struggled through his plethora of lines. Further, he displayed the stage instincts of a player far beyond his years, pausing at appropriate times for effect and covering occasional flubs by his cast-mates by seamlessly moving on to his own next line in the script.
Atlee Myers's Aunt Sally was the closest thing to Doyle's match on the stage. Her delivery was arresting, and she brought out a distinct humor in her lines, while her southern drawl was easily the most believable among the cast. Other standouts included Emily Farnsworth as Aunt Polly, Allan Cunningham as "the King," Jacob Sayers as "the Duke," and Ryan McConnell as Uncle Silas.
The set was spare, but a couple of props were noteworthy for their sophisticated design. Artificial ends of logs were affixed to the ends of a wheeled riser, which was then covered with plywood planks to create Huck's authentic-looking river raft. And a drawer from an over-sized armoire was credibly converted into a coffin.
Director Lorra Webb added some nice flourishes. Having her actors retain statuesque poses while they were in a scene, but not involved in those specific parts of it, eliminated the distraction that would have been caused by a constant stream of kids traipsing on and off stage. And the cast's recitation of their lines in brisk succession demonstrated her keen grasp of pacing.
Of course, Coble's production epitomizes the description "brisk." In the play's final line, Finn, having decided to sail away once more, tells the audience, "I'll see you out on the river."
Yes, but not for very long, Huck.
Performances of Huck Finn will continue through Saturday, Dec. 1. All shows start at 7 p.m. and cost $15 for adults and $8 for students and seniors. A $2 ticket deduction will be given in exchange for bringing a canned item to be donated to Amazing Grace Food Pantry. Oddfellows Playhouse is located at 128 Washington St.