Talk about nontraditional casting. An all-black ensemble assumes the identities of 17 mostly white, often bigoted, characters in the Falcon Theaters production of Puddnhead Wilson, which director Meryl Friedman has adapted from Mark Twains novel. This gambit reaches considerably beyond the comfortable tampering with classics with which weve come to associate that term, and in its own unassuming way, Friedmans play has more in common with Genet than with the high school outreach program for which it was originally tooled.
There may be only two or three familiar themes at work in Puddnhead Wilson, but they are fused together so seamlessly, and articulated with such furious irony, that we leave the theater stirred by a commotion of thoughts -- and the knowledge that we have witnessed something as close to stage perfection as possible.
Twains story, published in serial form in 1894, was originally inspired by his lifelong fascination with identical twins and the possibilities for social mischief such pairings present, but evolved into a complex chronicle of the disfiguring effects of American racism. It begins in 1830 with the appearance of one David Wilson (Joshua Wolf Coleman), a newly minted attorney, in the southern Missouri village of Dawsons Landing. It is young Wilsons misfortune, at the very start of his career, to make a Socratic remark about a barking dog that so confounds the narrow-minded townsfolk that he is regarded from that day onward as a puddnhead crank. No one will ever hire Wilson as a lawyer, and he spends the next 20 years working as a surveyor and accountant, while tending, in his considerable free time, to such idiosyncratic pastimes as palmistry and fingerprinting.
Shortly after Wilsons ill-starred arrival, Roxy (Kim Leigh Smith in a smoldering performance), a fair-skinned black slave who could pass for white on the Mayflower, decides to switch her equally blondine infant son, Tom (Gerald C. Rivers), with the masters baby boy, ensuring her child a life of opportunity -- while the masters true son, Chambers (Dwight R. Williams), though obviously white, is consigned to an existence of grinding servitude. From here, Twain pithily records the sluggish rhythms of antebellum village life, focusing on Roxys master, Percy Driscoll (Zaid Farid), and the couple who care for young Tom after Percys death: his brother, Judge Driscoll (Farid), and his widowed sister, Aunt Pratt (Vickilyn Reynolds).
The picture is a watercolor of provincial buffoonery and self-deception, with Twain zeroing in on the puffery and vanity of rurals and their hermetically sealed society. Then, one day, after Tom has matured into a dissolute parasite, the town becomes electrified by the arrival of two Italian nobles, twins named Luigi and Angelo (Curtis C. and Dwight R. Williams), at the lodgings of social climber Miss Patsy (Reynolds). The excitement discloses the towns fondness for the exotic, as well as its very fear of it -- and sets in motion the events that wheel the narrative from comedy toward tragedy.
For, while Twains caustic observations about Americas racial psychosis provide an atmosphere of giddy self-recognition, his characters make the wrong moral choices, time and time again, when confronted by adversity. Tom squanders the opportunities afforded by his mothers cradle-swapping, choosing a life of indolence, dishonesty and violence; the negrified Chambers, for his part, is so marked by the speech patterns and social DNA of black slavery that his eventual emancipation merely opens the door to another kind of prison. All of which sets the action on a trajectory that leaves little room for happy endings.
The recurring terror in PuddnHead Wilson is the threat of being sold down the river -- that is, from the comparatively benign slaveholding community of Dawsons Landing (a border town resembling Twains Hannibal, although located deeper south than the authors boyhood home) to the harsher plantation culture that festered further down the Mississippi. The river is a cruel and effective metaphor that never leaves the audiences consciousness, an almost Conradian region to which both the noblest and the most guilty characters find themselves drawn at various points during the 90-minute play.
The novel, one of Twains last, is considered to be a summary of the authors most pessimistic views of his countrymen. Although written when slavery (and even Reconstruction) was receding from memory, the story appeared at a time of intense racial paranoia, when lynchings reached their historical peak and when pseudo-Darwinist science was replacing biblical justifications for segregation. Finally, in 1896, the Supreme Courts Plessy vs. Ferguson decision established the separate but equal doctrine that poured the concrete for Jim Crow society.
If Puddnhead Wilson had been written today, with the benefit of 2020 political hindsight, its lessons would be just as legitimate as they were in Twains time, but coming from the depths of the 1890s, its uncompromising observations ring with a particularly grim honesty and foresight. It is to Meryl Friedmans credit that she originally worked on this show to provide a needed history lesson to Chicagos high school students, and it is to the Falcons that her show has been given such an elegant staging for the general theatergoing public.
Before becoming the Falcons executive director, Friedman was the longtime producing director of Chicagos Lifeline Theater and enjoyed an extensive association with the Steppenwolf Theater, which originally produced Puddnhead Wilson in 1994. It is hard to overstate the power of her adaptation, and of the skilled company she has assembled for this effort. Marcos Alvarezs broad, airy stage, whose transparency is broken by a few vertical wooden fence planks, a pulpit and some benches, becomes both a moral wilderness and a claustrophobic social diorama. The story is ushered in, and occasionally commented upon, by Friedmans low-key original music -- gospel-based songs performed with muscular a cappella arrangements by the ensemble. Like her theatrical translation, Friedmans musical adaptations are astute and faithful, revealing not a historians ego but the elemental power of the source material itself. And, in a particularly shrewd move, she entrusts much of the exposition to a Narrator (Gary L. Rowland) who interacts with various characters, thereby retaining the power of Twains storytelling while keeping the action on its rails.
The ensemble is first-rate, with principal actors like Coleman, Smith and Rowland establishing commanding presences, while the multicast players meld into their roles with chameleonlike ease. Peter Gottliebs lighting design establishes a crepuscular tone over the proceedings, incorporating a screen above the stage on which to project shifting, cloudlike patterns. Solidly complementing everything are Laura Brodys costumes, a cross section of period designs ranging from the 1890s to roughly the 1960s. It is the small flourishes -- the Italians striped cravats, the Scottish-descended Wilsons plaid vest -- that retain the storys humor and lend the production a special grace.
In Puddnhead Wilson one finds both the fatal self-deceptions peculiar to a specific era and the tumult of every American morality tale to come. Friedman, like Twain, pulls no punches: The play has no saints and is replete with the same use of the word nigger that continues to mire Twain in divisive controversy. How lucky we are, in this time of pallid political writing, to have this gift handed to us from the past, and how sad it is that we have nothing similar to offer the future.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.