A classic, observed Mark Twain in his novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, is "a book which people praise but don't read." That definition unfortunately fits Pudd'nhead itself, which is known mainly as the source of some of Twain's most biting aphorisms. So bravo to Steppenwolf Theatre for bringing to general audiences this potent story-theater piece, created last spring for school groups in recognition of the book's publication 100 years ago. Director-playwright Meryl Friedman's uncompromising adaptation (featuring credible traditional-style spirituals composed by Friedman and arranged by Douglas Wood) recounts one of Twain's most bitterly ironic tales: the story of a mulatto slave who switches her fair-skinned baby for her master's son, then suffers as the boy grows into a murdering bully who would sell his own mother--and does. The themes of duality and division implied by the pen name Twain, which run through better-known works like Huckleberry Finn and The Prince and the Pauper, are especially evident in this sometimes-grim study of social and racial inequity. This production, which preserves the enigmatic dryness of Twain's prose to darkly funny and often chilling effect, conveys an extra level of irony by using an all-black cast to play the mostly white and mulatto characters; headed by Kim Leigh Smith's wrenching performance as the slave mother, the show drives home Twain's sardonic perspectives on the moral and psychological bondage still endured by all members of a racist society. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, 335-1650. Through June 25: Saturdays, 1 PM; Mondays, 7 PM. $7-$10.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.