Tom Isbell’s adaptation of Rodman Philbrick’s award-winning children’s book The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, currently in production at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is interesting in that it appeals to older children and adults alike. Under the direction of Gregg Henry, seven capable actors assume multiple character roles to explore resilience, perseverance, and commitment in the face of adversity in the Civil War era. Equally educational and entertaining, this Kennedy Center commission is as successful as it is thanks to the strong source material with a compelling plot, and the committed cast.
Audiences are transported back to a tumultuous time in our history and go on adventures with the orphan teenager Homer P. Figg as he seeks to reunite with his brother (who has been forced to join the fighting force) and, at the same time, becomes acutely aware of slavery issues (including the Underground Railroad) and the North vs. South divide, and takes part in the now famous Battle of Gettysburg. As he interacts with good people and not-so-good ones, he learns important life lessons and finds strength within himself to do what’s needed. Thanks to his unrelenting commitment to finding his brother, he ultimately also helps to improve the good of American society as a whole as he fights (with others) in one of the most important Civil War battles.
Though Isbell’s adaptation is slow-moving at first, it doesn’t take all that long for the audience members to become invested in Homer P. Figg’s plight thanks to an endearing performance by Ryan Mercer as the title character. One is drawn to the affable young man as he is forced to deal with moral dilemmas and pursue what he thinks is right – no matter the potential personal cost. Even as a 20-something adult, Mercer proves more than capable of embodying a curious teenager who is faced with a new set of difficult and unexpected challenges.
Joe Brack (who portrays Homer’s brother Harold in addition to other roles), Michael Glenn, Michael V. Sazonov, and Michael Russotto lend their considerable dramatic and comedic acting talents to portraying an array of other characters that help Homer discover who he is and what’s right and wrong. Their exceptional ability to make a seamless transition from one character to another cannot be overstated. In Russotto’s case, this well-established DC actor is even tasked with transforming from a male to a female, which makes for several funny scenes especially for children.
James J. Johnson is also an integral part of the success of this play with his portrayal of Samuel Reed, a free black man and conductor on the Underground Railroad. Thanks to Isbell’s fine and accessible writing, and Johnson’s relatable and natural portrayal of Reed, audience members young and old can be reminded of the importance of freedom and the personal sacrifices many have made to secure it for others. Veronica del Cerro rounds out the strong ensemble in a series of smaller roles, which she executes quite well.
The production values are solid and do not detract the audience’s attention from the acting or the story line, but enhance it. Wisely, the director avoids the trap of ‘style over substance’ that is so prevalent in children’s theatre. Dan Conway’s scenic design has an old-time feel to it and establishes the historical context of the story well as do the projections. Elisheba Itoop’s ambient sound design appropriately leverages traditional music and sounds of war and Nancy Schertler’s lighting design is necessarily more intense during the climactic battle scene.
I’d highly recommend this show to families over this Thanksgiving holiday. It’s a good way to reinforce understanding of and appreciation for important elements of America’s past with the younger generation in a fun and accessible way.