It struck me, during Saturday's matinée performance of Big River at the Timber Lake Playhouse, that theatre is my church, considering I repeatedly wanted to raise my hands in praise and shout "Amen!" at various points, and in ways I used to while attending Sunday services in my younger years. Theatre, for me, is a spiritual experience, and this Big River served as a big-tent revival that reminded me of that truth.
It certainly helped that composer Roger Miller's bluegrass songs are tinged with gospel and stir the soul in ways that church-worship music has the capacity to. And director Courtney Crouse's cast was in near-perfect voice, eliciting goosebumps up and down my arms as they harmonized on "Muddy Water," "River in the Rain," and "Free at Last," in particular. This telling of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is moving not only for the music, but also for the lessons William Hauptman incorporates into his book, particularly when it comes to the inner struggle of Huck (Grant Alexander Brown) in helping escaped slave Jim (Charles Benson) make his way to freedom along the Mississippi River.
On scenic designer Benjamin Lipinski's relatively minimalist set, which merely boasts some layered outcroppings along the sides of the stage and a large tree in the center, Crouse avoids literal scene changes, and lets the story unfold through the actors' work. There is, of course, the integral raft that floats by way of the production's spinning stage, but otherwise, the set provides just enough to allude to locales rather than mirror them.
What's also remarkable about this presentation is James Beaudry's "musical staging," as the cast members themselves play guitars, an accordian, a banjo, a mandolin, and even a washboard. Under the music direction of Michael Uselmann, the actors, at times, fluidly and beautifully break the fourth wall to pluck an instrument out of thin air and play a song. This is also a mark of Crouse's storytelling overall, as Huck and others occasionally address the audience fully aware that there is an audience to address, moving between our world and theirs as if by magic.
There are few actors who have the distinction of being touted as a "Timber Lake favorite" for me, and while I mean no slight to any other performers, I consider Brown one of mine. He's exceptional at character parts, having elicited hearty laughs as Inspector Kemp in last year's Young Frankenstein and thrilling me as Corny Collins in this summer's Hairspray. Here, he abandons any shtick or pretense in favor of a passionate and sincere Huck, and even more notable is the energy with which he attacks the part, working up quite a sweat fairly quickly as he skips and races across the stage. There's a line he delivers toward the end of Big River that goes, "If I'd-a known what trouble it was gonna be to enact this history, I never would've tackled it. And I ain't a-goin' to no more." It thought that an understandable sentiment if by "trouble" he meant "energetic effort," and by "history" he meant "musical" ... and then I realized Brown had to do it all over again that night. That's impressive. I've seen actors perform with abandon, but few to the degree with which Brown plays Huck.
Similarly laudable is the depth of Benson's hope and pain as Jim. Those feelings are as palpable as his vocals are rousing, while John Chase struck true terror in my heart as Papp Finn, Huck's drunken, abusive father; as Chase staggered across stage and delivered his lines with manic anger, I truly feared for Huck. In a similar vein, I believed Matt W. Miles' Duke was in true pain when he was tarred and feathered and cried out at Huck's touch. And as he's so persuasive in his calls to piracy and murder among the boys, I'd follow Chandler Smith's Tom Sawyer anywhere. This is one mesmerizing cast delivering a story in a way that struck the core of my heart. I already loved Big River going into this production, but coming out of it, I loved it even more.
Big River runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll) through August 23, and more information and tickets are available by calling (815)244-2035 or visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.