Reviewed by David L. Schriber
Friday, Feb. 26, at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, entertainer Kurt H. Sutton portrayed Samuel L. Clemens in the family parlor, sharing the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. Audience members at the Goodwill Theatre received free copies of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, courtesy of “The Big Read” program, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts.
The snowstorm cancelled Thursday evening’s program, and though roads were clear Friday afternoon, it was hard to say how much the weather influenced the small audience that filled only one-third of the Firehouse Stage. Taking advantage of a snow day, a few families brought their children. (When this reviewer attended, a Friday evening performance was still to come.)
Sutton from Buford, Ga., dressed and looked the part as he wove together witticisms from many of Clemens’ writings, such as the difference between a tax collector and a taxidermist: the taxidermist leaves the skin on. “Mark Twain” explained the origin of some of the characters in his novels. Sutton, who, like Clemens, plays the banjo, guitar and “French harp” (harmonica), invited the audience to sing along to period tunes such as “My Darling Clementine,” “Get Along Home, Cindy,” “Bicycle Built for Two” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Sutton attempted to portray an elderly and somewhat enfeebled Mark Twain. The mumbling and forgetfulness was a bit overplayed to the point where the monologue was a little hard to hear at times. The biggest problem was the painfully slow pace. I was sure the children, who made up about a third of the audience, would be quickly bored to distraction, but they came to life when “Mark Twain” described being bucked off a horse and again when he described learning to ride the bicycle. The adults gave the biggest laughs to the yarn, from Roughing It, of how a certain Miss Jefferson would lend her glass eye to a certain Miss Wagner, whom it didn’t quite fit, either by size or color. Some of Twain’s humor is as timeless as today’s newspaper, such as his essay “Congress: The Grand Ole Asylum.”
Sutton’s appearance was made possible through a grant from the NEA’s “The Big Read” program, partnered nationally with the Institute of Museum and Library Services” and locally with the Family Enrichment Network. The Big Read aims to reverse a trend documented in a 2004 NEA study that showed that literary reading in America is declining among all ages, particularly the young. That’s why audience members of all ages were given a free study guide and age-appropriate copies of or excerpts from Tom Sawyer.