Tom(boy) Sawyer on the run

Connor Kerns' new heroine adaptation of the Mark Twain adventure is fun. It could've been radical, too.

One of my favorite parts of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is when Tom Sawyer suddenly reappears near the end of the story, and the worlds of Twain’s two most famous novels jarringly collide. Tom, still wrapped up in his adventure fantasies, gets Jim unjustly arrested and himself nearly killed because he wants to plan a daring escape rather than just tell everyone that Jim is, in fact, now free. Tom’s still just a kid; Huck has learned that there is a real world out there, with real danger and real consequences. And that’s the difference between the pair of their eponymous novels, too. Though The Adventures of Tom Sawyer includes murder and danger, the terror of the circumstances is mostly held at arm’s length by Tom’s boyish innocence.

Tom (Taylor Jean Grady) chills with some tunes. Photo: Gary Norman

In the new play Tom(boy) Sawyer from Quintessence: Language & Imagination Theatre, director and playwright Connor Kerns’ Tom(asina) Sawyer is not an innocent. She’s a weed-smoking community college dropout slacking her way through her twenties in Washougal, Washington in 1989. She can’t sing, but she dreams of being in a band. She can’t decide if she’s in love with her best friend Hector Finn, or her friend Jenny Thatcher. She hates The Man, but doesn’t really know why.

When Tom (Taylor Jean Grady) and Hector (Murren Kennedy) witness a murder in a cemetery during a late-night weed run, their friendship fractures: Hector wants to tell the cops. Tom, mistrustful of all authority, insists they keep it quiet. To avoid the rumors swirling in town, and the suspicions of a murderer who lives too close for comfort, they take a trip to Government Island to go camping with Jenny (Sasha Belle Neufeld). But the idyll quickly turns sour as Tom’s escapism crashes against Hector and Jenny’s yearning to start living their lives more fully.

The murder plot and island encampment—or at least echoes of them—are drawn from the novel. But the book’s light-hearted spirit is replaced with coming-of-age angst that feels more like John Hughes than Mark Twain.

Taken as a teen drama, the play is entertaining, if not groundbreaking. The intimate scenes are well-scaled to the tiny Shoe Box Theater, and Neufeld’s Jenny in particular rocks a series of fantastically ‘80s costumes (designed by Emily Horton). The encounters with a very creepy Bill Barry as Drinkin’ Joe, who commits the murder Tom and Hector witness, are all masterfully tense. Debbie Hunter as Dr. Robinson, his victim, is the most comfortable with Kerns’ not-quite-naturalistic language, and has a warm and deeply compelling stage presence. Her scenes, direct address from the dead doctor who then gets reluctantly pressed into double-duty playing a cop, are some of the richest and strangest. But they don’t really pay off, and neither of these threads quite integrates with the circular, ambling scenes on and after Government Island, even though they intersect narratively.

Taken as a riff on Tom Sawyer, my thoughts returned again and again to the central gender swap highlighted in the title itself.

When Tom’s immaturity is exposed in Huckleberry Finn, it’s because he has wandered into a new world. In Tom Sawyer, he’s mean and proud and he lies and cheats and sneaks around, and as he gradually comes to understand something of the gravity of the situations he finds himself in, it’s not at the expense of his vibrant, imaginative, wild sense of self. He retains an essential innocence that doesn’t pall until he’s no longer the hero of his own story, but a visitor in someone else’s.

But girls don’t get to be that kind of innocent. They don’t get that irresistible (but utterly asexual) charm. They don’t get to go on road trips. Girls learn lessons, get in love triangles, get held responsible. Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz learns you shouldn’t look for adventure beyond your backyard, Molly Aster in Peter and the Starcatcher learns you can’t avoid growing up, Sara Crewe in A Little Princess is tormented for years before someone comes to rescue her. Tom Sawyer doesn’t allow any girls when he runs away to form a band of outlaws on Lincoln Island, and Tomasina Sawyer is never allowed to forget that she’s a slacker, a fuckup, a girl, a girl, a girl.

I think an actual lady-led picaresque, centered on a girl with “mean, mean pride” and a heart filled with anarchic joy, not inchoate sadness, would be genuinely radical. Of course, particularly compared to Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer wasn’t radical. Neither is Tom(boy) Sawyer. But they’re both pretty fun.

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Quintessence’s Tom(boy) Sawyer continues through July 8 at the Shoe Box Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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