Thursday, May 5, 2016

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Assumption: you have a time machine. You can go back in history and have lunch with one person. Who would it be?

I wager that many people would quickly respond, “Jesus. I’d meet Jesus.”

Well, that might be great if you’re prepared to find out that he looks nothing like Jeffery Hunter. I suppose just being in his presence would be enough for most. But lunch will most likely be bread and fish, and you’ll need to speak Aramaic. At least you won’t need silverware, but the crowds might be a problem.

No, I’d like to have lunch with Mark Twain. He was arguably the most famous man of his era, he speaks English and conversation would never be lacking.

Recently I came as close as I’ll get to meeting the great American writer. My wife, daughter and future son-in-law had second row seats at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts for the legendary Hal Holbrook’s show, “Mark Twain Tonight.”

I’ll be honest. If you had asked me last summer before we bought our tickets I would have said that Holbrook was dead, or was at risk of not lasting until a show eight months later. At age 91, he may not have a lot of time remaining, so it’s truly remarkable that he can still do a one man show supported by nothing but a table, chair and podium for two hours. He carries some notes that he gingerly removes from the inside breast pocket of his white linen jacket, but it’s never clear if he’s using them as prompts or props. He returns them with great care, raises his unlit cigar in a wave of his hand that emphasizes a point in his monologue and then strolls across the stage.

One of his sketches relates the tale of an acquaintance that took forever to get to the point of a story. So long in fact, that “Twain” sits in his chair and drifts in and out of sleep over a period of several minutes. The audience becomes uncomfortably quiet during this sequence. It is a convincing portrayal. So much so that my wife whispered to me with a sense of urgency, “If he dies on stage I’ll never forgive you!”

He didn’t die, or even fall asleep. Eventually he stood and casually commented, “And that’s why we never found out about…”

A woman in our aisle struck up a conversation with us. She has seen this show about twenty times, and labeled me a fellow “Twainiac” when the depth of my interest was revealed.

The evening took me to new heights of my obsession. Upon returning home I downloaded a copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to read again, and dug deeper into volume one of Twain’s huge autobiography.

Holbrook was the second oldest performer we’ve ever seen. At 93, classical guitarist Andres Segovia remains the record holder. And there is a certain sadness that accompanies leaving a show, given the unlikely odds of seeing performers of this age again. I simply recommend, if there is someone you’ve been putting off seeing, don’t delay any longer. Whether it’s Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, The Monkees, Gordon Lightfoot, Brian Wilson or Willie Nelson, you just never know how many shows they have left to perform.

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