Review: "An Evening of Dinner and Theatre with Mark Twain"
By Emma Duncan--Eagle Editor
On March 15, community members gathered at Ferrum College for “An Evening of Dinner and Theatre with Mark Twain.” Featuring a literary legend's favorite foods and stories, the show delivered humor and interaction and displayed talent to its audience.
The play was the work of R. Rex Stephenson, who also took on the lead role. Stephenson is a retired professor of Theatre Arts at Ferrum College with a history of playing Mark Twain and running other dinner theatre events. After a long hiatus, all three of these roles are returning.
“An Evening of Dinner and Theatre with Mark Twain” was also made possible by Emily Blankenship-Tucker, performing arts professor and director of Appalachian Music at Ferrum College and member of the band After Jack. Blankenship-Tucker hosted the dinner and wrote many of the performance’s musical numbers in addition to performing in the play alongside Stephenson as “The Pretty Young Thing.”
This was not the pair’s first time working together; Stephenson and Blankenship-Tucker are well known in the area as The Jack Tale Storytellers. For years, they’ve performed their own adaptations of Richard Chase’s Jack Tales through music and acting. This successful history in the performing arts brought in a large group of spectators for “An Evening of Dinner and Theatre with Mark Twain,” as many community members have reported that they missed the duo’s ability to entertain a crowd.
The show took the audience through Twain’s life from 1835 to 1910. Twain talked about living a long life full of joyful memories, many of which could’ve killed him long ago but went on to inspire his many stories. From taking his first swig and his first smoke before turning 12 to being a member of the Keydettes of Temperance, sailing the Mississippi River with Mr. Bixby, and catching up with Booker T. Washington and Jesse James like it’s an average Tuesday, Twain seemed to have done it all.
His stories were told as a monologue which created a familiar, comfortable atmosphere that seemed as if one was having a conversation with their grandparent. Every character incorporated humor into their lines which kept the audience laughing all night long.
This humor flowed through every aspect of the performance, even its playbill. According to the pamphlet, “[Twain] refuses to be pinned down.” The programme’s scenes were out of order and the character list explained that every character’s appearance was simply happenstance. Some characters were expected not to perform at all. For example, “A Trombone player was engaged but is unreliable and should not be expected.” While some may have been irritated by this stylistic choice, it kept the audience on their toes in a good way.
One young audience member is bound to never forget his experience at the play, as he was brought on stage by Twain to reenact the Keydettes of Temperance’s inaugural speech. The young boy and his grandfather had to confess that Jesus was their Lord and Savior and that they would never drink alcohol nor smoke cigars. The look on the crowd’s faces as Blankenship-Tucker walked through the audience searching for volunteers, willing or unwilling, was priceless. It definitely kept the crowd engaged with Twain’s performance.
The audience was also enthusiastically engaged with the performers whenever music played. The bluegrass style presented in the play connected Franklin County, Virginia with Twain’s hometown of Florida, Missouri. Blankenship-Tucker sang and/or played the violin in every musical number. Her voice holds great grace, and she transitioned from low to high notes effortlessly, keeping the audience entertained and inspired. The play would have suffered had her talent not been featured.
As a matter of fact, all of the singing in this play was absolutely beautiful. Sarah Laliberte, a Ferrum student, had an incredible vocal range and stood out to me even though she was mostly a part of the ensemble. When she did sing solo, each word was sung with control. Laliberte is an astounding vocalist who could sing anything, from an uplifting ballad about Twain’s youth to a musical plea for prohibition.
Each song in this play was spectacular, but there is one that I will never forget. Ironically, this was also the song with the simplest lyrics: “Mark Twain.” That’s it. One wouldn’t expect a performer to be able to do much with two words, but Ferrum student Lacey Matthews took Twain’s name and made it her own. There was no music and just a hint of backup vocals but even those weren’t really needed. Matthews has great power in her vocal cords! I will admit, I was a bit worried at first when a shy girl walked on stage all alone, but by the end of her performance, everyone in that theatre was clapping in awe. Matthew’s words freely flowed like a rushing river, which connected Twain's surname to his background. Without a doubt, she made the show a success!
My only complaint about Laliberte’s and Matthew’s performances is that I wish they would’ve been able to sing more. I wish “An Evening of Dinner and Theatre with Mark Twain had featured a bit more student involvement as a whole. The parts of young Twain and of the interviewer could have been played by Ferrum students rather than adults, but there may be underlying circumstances regarding the cast. Additionally, Stephenson is Twain reembodied, and given his history with the character, he definitely should’ve played the lead. I was incredibly impressed with Stephenson’s ability to remember so many lines, especially since he didn’t miss a beat.
There were a few other hiccups in the performance, such as when student actors would lose character immediately after their musical number had ended even though they were still on stage. By the end of the play, however, this problem had been resolved, but it briefly reminded the audience that they were watching a performance, not a true journey through Twain’s life.
As the show came to a close and Twain was wrapping up his final story, he said a line that stuck with me: “You’ve been very patient with an old man, thank you.” As the audience gave Stephenson and the rest of the cast a standing ovation, the line felt like it applied to both Twain and Stephenson. Twain had just told us the story of his life, but for Stephenson, this was a return to his passion. It was the first time he had gotten to perform in years, and this return to the stage was incredibly memorable. A tear fell from his eyes, a slight smile lit up his face, and I could tell we were both saddened to realize that “An Evening of Dinner and Theatre with Mark Twain” had come to an end.
However, community members won’t have to wait long for the Ferrum Theatre Department’s next performance, as Blankenship-Tucker and Stephenson have been working on another play, Treasure Island, which will hit the stage on April 20.