Touchstone Theatre

Huckleberry Finn’s journey down the Mississippi is the classic American initiation rite: a Missouri whelp’s not-so-innocent naivete about slavery, lynch mobs, and family feuds slowly grows into an adult skepticism–and better, a skepticism about adults.

Huck’s creator, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, had his own rites of passage as a young man. After stints as a printer, a steamboat pilot, and for two inglorious weeks a Union soldier, Clemens heeded Horace Greeley’s advice and lit out in 1862 for the territory of Nevada, where he served as an assistant to his brother, the newly appointed secretary of state.

Before settling down as a journalist and lecturer, Mark Twain dabbled, unsuccessfully, in gold prospecting while he was in Nevada. Those adventures, among others, became the raw material for his rollicking 1872 memoir, Roughing It (a companion piece to Twain’s first literary success, his irreverent 1867 travel saga The Innocents Abroad). The book traces in picaresque style Twain’s passage from Saint Louis across the plains to Nevada, to Salt Lake City, then on to Virginia City, San Francisco, and the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands.

Drunk with words, Twain abandoned the facts in order to do justice to the frontier spirit. He never found any gold, but his experiences are priceless: in Roughing It he told them more vividly than any other writer of his time or ours could have. A jaunty hodgepodge of tall tales, natural description, and character sketches, Roughing It mirrors not only Twain’s original rawboned, bug-eyed gawker but his later persona as a seasoned humorist with a pungent gift for ironic understatement and glorious exaggeration. (In 1991 only Dave Barry, Twain’s natural successor, has equaled that gift.)

Here, for example, is Twain’s wry description of his prospector days–“cooped up for months, stuck in stage coaches, storms, tents and mining shacks with the most absurd, deranged, even dangerous collection of human lunatics, whose idea of conversation goes no further than pointless rambling about two-bit cutthroats, quartzite, buffalos and the adventures of Horace Greeley.” The pre-Huck Twain may not have been powerful on plot, but he was a spellbinding storyteller in the oral tradition of Artemus Ward and Bret Harte.

In Touchstone Theatre’s richly mined world premiere, adapter Tom Creamer retells the stories with a vigor equal to Twain’s, and Jim Ragland’s background music buoys them with its own high spirits. What results is a gem of hilarious Americana, a fun, swift-moving adaptation of a western classic that could become a classic itself.

Avoiding the clutter of Twain’s sprawling travelogue, Creamer concentrates on young Sam’s hard times in Nevada, as narrated by his older, writing self. Among the perils of the journey is an endless cross-country trip by stagecoach, when young Sam endures a garrulous traveler’s inexhaustible small talk. When he gets to Carson City, Sam develops a bad case of gold fever and joins forces with Bemis, a greenhorn who yearns to strike it rich, and Ballou, a malapropism-spouting, cantankerous old prospector mad for gambling.

The trio clashes with Slade, the crooked owner of the Wide West mine, a sharpshooting slime bucket who makes up the law as he goes along. Slade and his trigger-happy goon, Arkansas, run the region’s one successful claim, reducing luckless prospectors to coolies who work for $2 a week.

Still, the plucky dreamers mine on for themselves, providing Sam a hard-knocks education. Ballou teaches him a valuable lesson on how to tell fool’s gold from the real thing: “Nothing that glitters is gold,” he cautions the young man. But the older Twain confesses, “I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of pyrite; commonplace human nature cannot rise above that.”

Bemis stumbles on a “blind lead” (a mother lode that’s barely visible at the surface, so it can be found only by luck), and then not even a killer blizzard can slow the trio’s rush to stake a claim to the mine they call the “Monarch of the Mountains.” But they only have ten days to do it and–curses!–Slade and his testy stooge also have designs on the claim. The story gathers steam as Sam and his pals fight for their piece of the American dream.

A virtual anthology of early American humor–almost all the characters have tales to tell–Ina Marlowe’s staging is made up of the same stuff that gave vaudeville such joy. There’s a ripsnorter about a carnivorous tree-climbing buffalo, and a great sight gag when the three prospectors are lost in a blizzard and follow their own ever-widening trail like demented bird dogs. In a satire of Victorian melodrama, since all of them expect to die momentarily, each sententiously discards a favorite vice, floridly promising to reform knowing he’ll never need to implement the vow. A second-act kangaroo trial is vintage Twainian satire. But the gem here is Twain’s often-anthologized “Grandfather’s Old Ram”: seemingly stolen from a 19th-century tabloid, the tale never gets finished because its long-winded teller can’t resist disgusting digressions about glass eyes and cannibals.

Twain’s yarn spinning forges a real world, as does Kevin Snow’s raked and raw wooden stage with its ghostly pine trees and music-hall props. Though Marlowe’s staging loses pep near the end, the production still glows with inspired casting and character turns. Looking much like the middle-aged Twain when he was riding the lecture circuit, Nick Polus plays the seasoned writer with a nice mix of oil and vinegar; he shows a flair for Twain’s rhetorical flourishes.

As the author’s eager-beaver younger self, Ron Livingston neatly replaces Sam’s original wide-eyed trust with an increasingly hard-eyed cynicism. Tracy Hultgren’s bumptious, know-it-all Bemis (he’s superb in his story about the climbing buffalo) is a fine foil to Larry Hart’s crotchety Ballou. Unfortunately Hart’s brilliant takeoff on Gabby Hayes and Walter Brennan entails diction so slurred that quite a few of the word-crazed Ballou’s magnificent malapropisms disappear.

Though William P. Bannon’s Slade swaggers with a born bully’s arrogance, he could be bigger still–more energetic–and not lose the cur’s sinister side. Likewise Peter Goldfinger, the manically homicidal Arkansas, could have more fun with his dumb-as-a-rock role and still not lose the menace.

As the hard-drinking tavern keeper Mrs. Blaine, Melinda Moonahan gets to deliver the tale about the grandfather ram, the ultimate shaggy-dog story; though Twain didn’t give the story to a woman, Moonahan renders it with a dithering abandon.

Her scene produces the play’s most touching moment: the tavern keeper’s rambling tour de force sends most of her listeners into a sound sleep, but young Sam Clemens remains entranced, his eyes lighting up as if he’s just discovered his new vocation. And maybe that’s how it did happen.