For all the swashbuckling fun, colorful villains, good guys, suspense and even Shakespeare offered by Ken Ludwig's stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," playing through Aug. 8 as part of the Oberlin Summer Theatre Festival, the playwright keeps intact the coming-of-age tale's heart : Childhood innocence interrupted.
These three words have endeared us to a myriad of fictional youngsters who've had to come of age too quickly, missing out on carefree moments we fondly recall from our own youthful days.
One can add "To Kill a Mockingbird's" young characters as well as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to a list, which includes "Treasure Island's" Jim Hawkins, of young people thrust into difficult situations -- moments during which they must wrestle with their conscience and suffer through such prejudice. danger or tragedy, your heart can't help but go out to them.
In Ludwig's adaptation, sure Hawkins is off to a thrilling adventure most can't say they've experienced. But he also must not only determine whom he can and cannot trust during the treacherous search for the treasure, the fatherless boy is aching even more than in Stevenson's novel for a surrogate dad.
In the festival's fine production of Ludwig's fun, suspense-filled and faithful adaptation without being a replica, our young hero seems to have found that surrogate dad: Long John Silver, especially as embodied by the immensely talented Neil Thackaberry. "Seems to" are key words here.
"Things aren't always what they seem, now are they?" Hawkins asks at one point during the play.
Indeed they aren't -- especially in Thackaberry's two-faced, nuanced portrayal of the one-legged pirate with a parrot.
On the one hand, Thackaberry's Silver comes across as a kind, affable aging uncle whose convivial personality would draw a child like a magnet onto his lap, hoping he'll tell you a story -- or swap some favorite Shakespearean quotes.
On the other hand, Thackaberry's Silver is so unpredictable he's spellbinding. One moment, the actor exudes that kindly aura. But before a second can pass, he's slit the throat of someone with such unassuming, clinical precision, you think you're watching Mr. Hyde magically invade Dr. Jekyll's body.
Perhaps it's no accident that Stevenson is the author of "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," about a kindly doctor whose evil alter-ego makes its presence known.
More than once, the duality of man is seen in Silver and it's seen vividly in Thackaberry's portrayal. We get a taste of Silver's bad side at the end of act one, when the actor's voice lowers to a menacing quality.
Poor Hawkins, who, as played by Colin Wulff, looks older then the lad of about 14. But Wulff, in a multi-faceted portrayal, convincingly captures Hawkins' impulsive nature, happy, adventure-loving personality, bravery, contemplative moments and sincerity. His growth into a mature person is seamless.
Playwright/adapter Ludwig finds a nice balance between action and dialogue as well as the "loving villain" aspect of the pirates and their frightening demeanor.
He's kept "Treasure Island" as a memory tale, having Hawkins narrate parts of the story in flashback.
In this production, director Paul Moser finds the fast-paced danger and adventure, but also finds the quieter, thoughtful moments. Those include Hawkins narration, during which Wulff stands apart from the action, the lights dim and the actor's shadow is cast against the wall, reinforcing the memory aspect.
Flickering lights and foreboding sound effects lend the production a dark, danger-filled quality. However, lighting designer Jeremy K. Benjamin could use colors more effectively. White lighting during a battle scene or the use of blue during intense moments are questionable choices.
What's unquestionable is Ludwig's incorporation of Shakespeare.
Yes, he loves the Bard, as evidenced by his book "Teaching Children Shakespeare," which encourages parents to expose their children to the great writer and poet at an early age so they'll be able to quote his wisdom their whole life long.
But in this adaptation, Hawkins and Silver quote Shakespeare's lines during intimate moments, creating a father-son like bond.
Shakespeare's tales include adventure and those set on or near the sea ("The Tempest," for instance), so pairing the Bard with an 18th century tempestuous pirate tale makes sense.
And at one point, Hawkins says he feels a connection with his father's ghost, as though the late man, who in Ludwig's adaptation also loved Shakespeare, were speaking "Hamlet's" lines to him.
Finally, Shakespearean actors often play multiple roles, and so do this production's actors.
David Bugher, whose commendable work I've seen before, is unrecognizable as a bullying, menacing Captain Flint and a high-energy, wide-eyed, optimistic Squire Trelawney.
Other standouts include Benjamin Sandberg as a salivating, wickedly opportunistic and savage Blind Pew, a deep rich voiced, honorable Joseph Trumbo as Dr. Livesey, an animalistic, primitive David Munnell as the marooned Benn Gunn, a self-centered Pete Ferry as Captain Smollet and a crafty Nathan Krasner as Israel Hands.
Shane Lonergan is appropriately annoying and unsteady as Billy Bones, but his vulnerability and fear are missing from the performance.
Credit director Moser, who doubles as set designer, with versatile wooden structures, which can open and close to represent different locales and ladders which allow dramatic movement.
Costume designer Inda Blatch-Geib's period, colorful clothing add eye candy to the dramatic story, told in a thrilling manner by a hugely entertaining, convincing company.
And did we mention the festival, now in its sixth year, offers free -- that's right free -- productions of family-friendly classics?
Stay tuned for more.
Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Treasure Island"
WHEN: Various times through Aug. 8
WHERE: Hall Auditorium, 67 N. Main St., Oberlin
HOW MUCH: Free. For more information, visit www.oberlinsummertheaterfestival.com or all 440-775-8169.