A white actor and a Black actor, dressed as Huck Finn and Jim, stand together onstage, with a rough blanket held over their heads.
Eric Amundson (left) and Curtis Bannister in Big River at Mercury Theater Chicago Credit: Liz Lauren

The dramaturgy displays alone for Mercury Theater Chicago’s Big River, based on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, taught me more about Mark Twain’s 1830s-set, biting antislavery novel than I learned from studying the book in junior high, high school, undergrad, and grad school combined. First off, the musical (music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman) is as much about Jim (Curtis Bannister) as it is about Huck (Eric Amundson). And Jim, as nobody taught me in several decades of English lit courses, was inspired by a real person: Daniel Quarles, an enslaved man Twain befriended when the author was a child.

At the start of Big River—which picks up just after the close of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—Huck is in grave danger of becoming a shiftless, illiterate ne’er-do-well, according to the good Christian ladies who have taken him in. Huck’s evolution from schoolboy truant to full criminal by helping Jim escape shows in no uncertain, if deeply satirical, terms just who the real sinners were. 

Big River
Through 6/11: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport, 773-360-7365, mercurytheaterchicago.com, $39-$85

Directed by Christopher Chase Carter with Malcolm Ruhl’s signature superior musical direction, Big River is anchored by the empathy-inducing and alternately wrenching and humorous leads. 

Carter has also aptly emphasized an indelible scene where we see an enslaved family brutally ripped apart, the anguish on stage a tableau not unlike the one displayed at Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library. It’s a scene that puts the score’s catchy, twangy folk melodies and soaring harmonies (Bannister and Amundson make music bound for glory on “River in the Rain” and “Muddy Water”) in context. Twain was a master at naming and condemning the evil built right into the laws of the U.S. of A. One wishes he were still writing today.