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Book adapted by William Hauptman from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Directed by Jeff Calhoun

Produced by Deaf West Theatre

At Ford’s Theatre to May 1

Moby Dick Rehearsed

Adapted by Orson Welles from the novel by Herman Melville

Directed by Jack Marshall

Produced by the American Century Theater

At Gunston Theater II to April 30

There’s a moment toward the end of Big River, where there’d usually be a stirring, all-hands-on-deck reprise of the show’s big number, that crystallizes what’s so joyous about Deaf West Theatre’s reinvention of this folksy, friendly musical. It’s…well, it’s a stirring reprise of the show’s big number, “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” except that in the last chorus, when normally the orchestra would amp up its noise and the entire full-throated ensemble would spread its arms, plant its feet, and reach for the big harmonies, the house falls absolutely silent—and all the hands on deck sign the song in a splendid, soundless unison, arms and fingers swooping and gliding graceful as larks through the rapturously lit blue yonder that’s opening up at the back of the stage. And you feel, if only for an instant, what it means to know the world through a language not your own.

Which is, in one not-insignificant way, what Mark Twain was up to in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that endlessly fascinating, endlessly troublemaking portrait of an adolescent America awakening to itself. Huck’s discovery of humanity in Jim, his runaway-slave companion, turns out to be just the central glimmer in a whole spectrum of illuminations, and if Roger Miller’s mid-’80s musicalization of the story isn’t anything like as rich as the source material, it gets that one flash of insight right. And Jeff Calhoun’s tremendously theatrical rethink, which originated at Deaf West’s Los Angeles home in 2001 and has since seen a Broadway production and a national tour, underscores the point; Calhoun & Co. fold in storytelling techniques from deaf and hearing traditions with equal grace, emphasizing difference and commonality alike with every change of scene.

How? By parceling out roles creatively among a blended cast of hearing and hearing-impaired actors. By pairing a Huck who delivers his lines in American Sign Language (a fresh-faced, winning Christopher B. Corrigan) with a narrator—Twain (Bill O’Brien)—who haunts the corners of the stage, speaking a translation with crisp humor and singing the young rascal’s songs in a clarion tenor. And by finding other smart, sensitive ways to blur the lines between two modes of communication—two actors share the part of Huck’s drunken beast of a Pap, for instance, one signing, one speaking, and if Darren Frazier takes a swig from the moonshine jug, it’s Jay Lusteck who draws a rough arm across his mouth.

Or is it the other way around? One of the ways you can tell a show’s really humming is that you stop noticing its devices, and midway through Big River, you may be startled to discover you’ve lost track of who’s speaking as well as signing (Michael McElroy, the terrifically charismatic hearing actor playing Jim) and who’s signing a role while an upstage figure speaks the words. By that point you’ll have noticed, too, how beautifully fluid the gestures of the ASL vocabulary become when actors are singing—and how each performer has a distinctly expressive way with the signs. (Watch Huck and Jim in a duet, and measure Corrigan’s boyishly exuberant sweeps against McElroy’s elegantly contained style.)

All this lovely art, and still there’s the music: Miller taps bluegrass and gospel traditions in numbers that range from the pleasantly silly (the square-dance cadence of show-opener “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?”) to the disappointingly saccharine (the pretty pop-lite duet “Worlds Apart”) to the soaringly sublime. McElroy, a Tony nominee for his Broadway stint in this show, delivers at least a couple of the last, deploying a soul-stirring baritone in “Muddy Water,” an uptempo celebration of the Mississippi’s might; “River in the Rain,” a laid-back ballad about its beauty; and “Free at Last,” every bit as righteous and moving as your heart longs for it to be. And Jeannette Bayardelle outdoes even him as a kind of gospel-wailing Greek chorus who steps in here and there to comment—“How Blest We Are,” she sings midway through Act 2, and it’s both a song of praise and a heartfelt prayer for deliverance.

Lest it begin to sound as if this rechanneled Big River were a life-changing thing, it’s worth noting that not everything about it is as thrilling as McElroy and Bayardelle; William Hauptman’s book strips away too much of the dark honesty that makes Huck Finn such an enduring mirror of the American soul, and once or twice the energy flags as Corrigan and his compatriots negotiate a longish string of familiar adventures—the fleecing of rural Tennessee rubes with a sideshow starring the “Royal Nonesuch,” the gulling of a recently bereaved Arkansas clan. And if Deaf West’s approach generally enriches what’s otherwise a nice but never revelatory musical, there’s at least one instance where it saps a scene of the resonance it might otherwise have: In that family’s parlor, the dead man’s daughter grieves over his coffin while Huck watches from a hiding place, discovering something in her that helps awaken more of that unselfish humanity. It’s an intimate moment, or it should be, but the presence here of not one but three or four additional actors prevents the two from connecting.

But marvelous connections abound elsewhere: This Big River manages to tell its story seamlessly in two languages at once, and it does so with such thoroughgoing style that you may forget for a while which one’s your own. If you don’t, you’ll want to—and that’s evidence enough that something pretty wonderful is going on.

It was almost a decade ago that the American Century Theater first made a splash with Moby Dick Rehearsed, Orson Welles’ revamp of the tale of that other great white terror. I didn’t see the show then, though I gather there was something genuinely exciting about its bare-bones theatricality and its supposedly improvised air. Not so, I’m afraid, with Jack Marshall’s remounting of the production, which again stars the menacingly magnetic Charles Matheny as both Ahab and the Wellesian director of the putative rehearsal we’re watching.

Matheny’s fine, and the project is still as fascinating a curiosity as it was in 1955: Welles, in one last bid to revive the buzz of his adaptor-director-actor heyday, staged a typically complicated spectacle derived from Herman Melville’s immensely complicated novel, cobbling together the big set-pieces of the story in a meticulously scripted imitation of an improvisation. The director himself played the “director” who plays Ahab; his shipmates were a classically trained English troupe who apparently didn’t take too well to his chaotic working style.

Marshall and his American Century forces recreate the piece but not the context, and maybe the problem is that a supposedly improvised evening of theater isn’t something terribly novel to most contemporary audiences. Or maybe it’s that for a supposedly improvised evening, this one feels pretty well-rehearsed—even the occasional interjection from the stage manager (Tom Fuller, who’s not, of course, the actual stage manager) comes off as if on cue. Or that, absent knowledge of how revolutionary Welles’ effort really was, there’s not much extra charge in watching it re-enacted.

What’s left is a reasonably vivid retelling of Melville’s titanic tale, and that Marshall and his company manage with a spare inventiveness and no little energy. If nothing else, the light-and-shadow whale they conjure for that crucial confrontation is the very stuff of the stage—one part suggestion, four parts imagination. So, theatrical? Sure. But thrilling? Not so much. CP