Perhaps American literature’s most popular fictional characters are two 19th century Midwest boys — Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — with little in common besides being orphans.
The boys’ shared youthful exuberance and lessons learned from one another create an inseparable bond, endearing them to both school kids reading Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” for the first time and adults tackling the classics.
So when Bess Wallerstein Huff, director of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” production that opens June 18 at The Theatre in the Park, started casting for the musical last March, she had two requirements for the leading actors.
“Spark and chemistry,” said Wallerstein Huff, an Overland Park-based performing arts professional marking her directorial debut with the production that also makes its inaugural bow to Kansas City audiences.
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“Tom and Huck make the delicate and complicated transition from boyhood to manhood, and those were the combined qualities I was seeking.”
Enter stage right 19-year-old Preston O’ffill of Overland Park and 20-year-old Jeremy Walterman of Olathe. The two actors auditioned and were requested for callbacks, and Wallerstein Huff knew she found the perfect duo to play Tom and Huck.
“Preston and Jeremy possessed a sort of brotherhood that was very charming and effective,” she said.
What Wallerstein Huff didn’t know was the secret ingredient fueling O’ffill and Walterman’s onstage dynamic: each comes from a set of twin brothers. O’ffill is a fraternal twin to brother William and Walterman is an identical twin to Justin.
According to Wallerstein Huff, O’ffill, who plays Tom and Walterman, who plays Huck, created an offstage magic that enriches their performances.
“Preston and Jeremy’s personal relationship translates to the stage, which is something you can’t just direct,” she said. “And they helped build a huge sense of community with the production’s ensemble, too, which adds another layer to the show.”
O’ffill, a graduate of Blue Valley West High School with 38 high school plays to his credit, was delighted to make Walterman’s acquaintance at his first Theatre in the Park experience.
“We discovered our mutual twin situation and shared story after story,” he said. Including the fact that each twin had invented his own distinct language to communicate with his sibling.
“Jeremy and I can talk with our respective brothers in this weird language no one else understands,” said O’ffill, who hopes to head to Chicago in a couple of years and do sketch comedy and improv at The Second City in Chicago.
“It’s nonsensical, but we get it. We read between the lines.”
Another shared twinning moment sealing the fledgling actors’ bond are the awkward times that girls mistake them for their brothers.
“I’m not identical, like Jeremy, but there have been several times when girls thought I was William,” said O’ffill, clearly relishing the moments of mistaken identity.
Walterman, a graduate of Olathe South High School, is in his fifth Theatre in the Park production.
“Preston and I have a powerful vibe on and offstage,” he said. “We’re very supportive of one another, just like we are with our brothers.”
O’ffill and Walterman admit their twin-ship also drives them to challenge one another in character development.
“We encourage each other to do our lines better, to sing that song better, to dig deeper into our characters,” said Walterman, who aspires to be a fourth grade teacher.
“Being twins gives us unique insights into our characters and for me, it was easier to discover who Huck was and really drill down into that, which I think ultimately makes it easier for audiences to relate.”
For O’ffill and Walterman, being buddies while preparing for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” was a bonus.
“Just like our twin brothers, we are here for one another,” O’ffill said. “Finding that one person to help you in life, that’s pretty special.”
Wallerstein Huff is confident the authentic alliance that has blossomed as a result of O’ffill and Walterman’s twin connection will resonate with the audiences that come to see “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
“When you read a book, the characters live in the two-dimensional pages and the rest is illustrated in your imagination,” she said. “Preston and Jeremy’s personal friendship, along with the rest of the talented cast — including 24 other kids under the age of 21 — have created an electric three-dimensional world that brings this beloved American story to life.”
O’ffill agrees that his friendship with Walterman injects a genuine element into the actors’ portrayals.
“A bond is a bond,” said O’ffill. “Tom and Huck had one, and Jeremy and I have one. That’s cool.”
Books for popcorn
The Theatre in the Park, now in its 45th season, is partnering with The HIKE (Help Instill the Key to Education) Reading Achievement Program, created with Phoenix Family through a five-year partnership of the Trent Green Family Foundation. HIKE provides expert instruction, academic support and educational resources to enhance reading skills of low-income children. Theatergoers bringing new or gently used books to donate when attending a performance of “ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” will receive a coupon for free popcorn.
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” opens July 18 at The Theatre in the Park in Shawnee Mission Park and runs for seven performances July 19 and 20 and July 23 through 26. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.; all shows begin at 8:30 p.m. Youth tickets (ages 4 to 10), $6 plus tax; adult tickets $8 plus tax. Limited reserved chairs available at $20 plus tax. Visit www.theatreinthepark.org for more information and to purchase tickets.