Big River: through the eyes of a young boy, we see the “damned human race” at its ugliest

Photo by Liz Lauren

Big River, William Hauptman’s musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (with songs by Roger Miller of “King of the Road” fame), tells a complicated moral tale that centers on an uneducated Missouri 14-year-old in the pre-Civil War era. Hauptman keeps most of the beats of the novel, though he loses a few scenes that, though thematically important, are such downers that they would make an upbeat musical impossible. (To be fair, Twain’s story, in its efforts to show the evil of slavery and the depravity of human beings along with the “adventures” of a teenage boy, does tend toward extremes: one of the missing passages is about a massive family feud in which everyone on both sides is killed although no one can even remember what started it. Still, without these scenes, a lot of the tale’s underbelly is not in focus.)

Perhaps, in an era when everything is portrayed in absolutes, (in fact an era that mimics the antebellum South in many ways), we need to remind ourselves of how easy it is to allow our darkness to overwhelm us. With that in mind, Big River should probably be a staple right now for all sorts of theatre companies. Of course, as a show focusing on slavery that includes multiple White actors using the N-word, it can and should be off-putting. Many people can’t look past those elements to see Twain’s forceful and angry lambasting of the 1840s White South, which is why the novel is one of the most banned books ever. It’s not unreasonable to react that way: even pared down, there is a whole lot of ugliness in this story (including Tom Sawyer’s eleventh-hour overly complicated and allegedly comic “rescue” of a slave who has already been freed, as the boy cares only for the adventure and can’t see the harm he is inflicting on the chained and degraded human being).

Still, if you are able to look past its depictions of the evils of slavery and bigotry, it should be stated that even bereft of its darkest indictments of Southerners of that era, Chicago’s current production, presented by Mercury Theater Chicago and directed by Christopher Chase Carter with music direction by Malcolm Ruhl, is a kind of gift: without sacrificing any of the story’s evils, it focuses so profoundly on Huck (Eric Amundsen) and his friendship with the escaped slave Jim (Curtis Bannister) as they float down the Mississippi that we can’t possibly lose track of the tale’s innate goodness despite Twain’s focus on what he called the “damned human race.”

Both Amundsen and Bannister are perfect in their portrayals of these iconic characters. If Huck seems older than his age, it’s because of all of the suffering he has done at the hands of his father Pap (David Stobbe in an oddly inflected and far more genial portrayal than we usually get of this character). But he easily slips back into boyhood whenever he is around the Peter Pan-like Tom Sawyer (Callan Roberts), who simply takes over Huck’s life whenever he is onstage, filling it with childish games instead of his gradual awareness that something in his world is very wrong. As for Jim, Bannister is a wonderfully stoic presence and someone who can teach his young companion just from his demeanor what is really important in life. As in the book, the character is a constant beacon pointing toward love and justice.

Stobbe and Gabriel Fries portray the King and the Duke, two con artists with whom Jim and Huck fall in who dominate Act Two with their amoral schemes. (Stobbe reappears yet again as Silas Phelps in the final scene.) Fries is especially enjoyable when dealing with the rip-off show he calls “The Royal Nonesuch.” Both the song of that name and the butchered “Shakespearean” monologue he recites for the paying customers are a hoot. It should be noted, though, that those customers, after realizing that they have been conned, choose to talk the Nonesuch up for their neighbors so they will not be the only ones foolish enough to fall for the con men. The show may have cut out the darkest scenes of the “damned human race,” but in a story that prominently features slavery, there are a lot more instances to find.

Other than “The Royal Nonesuch,” Miller’s music (which is pretty much wall-to-wall here, played by a three-piece band conducted by Marques Stewart that features, among other things, a harmonica, a pennywhistle, and a jaw harp) is often fun and sets the tone for these “adventures” and for the moral complications that Huck wishes would stay at arm’s length. Amundsen’s bouncy “I, Huckleberry, Me” sets up the self-centered thoughts of an average young boy but, by that point, we have already seen him ripped away from the “sivilized” life he despises and dragged across the river by Pap. “Waiting for the Light to Shine” is a more honest reflection of who Huck is at this point in his life.

When he befriends Jim and they travel downriver together, Huck starts becoming more aware that this man, this friend, is not in fact lesser than he is just because he is Black. While he does not yet realize that he has found his shining light, Huck’s attitudes slowly change. As the two companions bond through eloquent songs like “River in the Rain,” we are treated to frequent outside reminders of the plight of the slaves, who join together onstage (with some remarkable voices) on several occasions. By the time they have brought the house down with “Free at Last,” Jim and the rest of the slaves have become as much the focus of the story, if not more so, than Huck is. And why not? The stakes for them are much, much higher.

Carter does a remarkable job directing this production even as he does choose to leave those N-words in (a decision I’m sure he lost some sleep over). While they are key to showing the painful ugliness with which the Antebellum South treated Black people, that word is potent, and each usage still leaps out as inappropriate. It’s a very difficult line on which to balance, and it can easily be argued that removing them, while it would not be true to the show’s era, might be much better for ours. That being said, Carter does get everything possible from his cast and from Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s absolutely wonderful set. Along with Denise Karzcewski’s mood-enhancing lighting and the wall of background sound provided by Kurt Snieckus, they transport us to the river in that era and keep reinforcing our location throughout, making it easy to forget that we are sitting in a theater in Chicago. Carter uses his extensive ensemble very well: scenes and characters are quickly and clearly defined and, for a show on a unit set, things feel remarkably fluid.

Still, the show belongs to its narrator Huck, who learns that, though people tell him that those who help runaway slaves will go to hell, some things are more important. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” he proclaims when all of his adventures have conspired to make him see the world in a more humanistic light. If an uneducated 14-year-old boy can understand this and act on it, Twain seems to be saying, maybe we don’t have to be damned after all.

Big River is playing at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago, until June 11. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see or

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