Add Rodman Philbrick’s Homer P. Figg to the list of literature’s charming boyish rogues like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He’s a clever lad who is not above stretching the truth when he believes that the situation warrants it. The Civil War era presents a variety of challenging circumstances that are played out in The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, a family theatre production receiving its world premiere at the Kennedy Center.
Twelve-year-old Homer and his older brother Harold live with their cheap and malevolent uncle Squinton Leach (Philbrick has a knack for names) in Pine Swamp, Maine. Uncle Squint concocts a bogus criminal charge against Harold so that he can sell Harold into the Union Army for the recruitment bonus, despite the fact that the boy is too young to serve. Homer decides to run away so he can try to find Harold and save him from the war.
Thus Homer begins a picaresque odyssey that will expose him to a variety of characters and dangerous situations. Homer is initially captured by a pair of comic scalawags named Smelt and Stink, who attempt to use Homer to further their efforts to catch slaves fleeing to Canada.
Homer is befriended by the noble Jebediah Brewster (Michael Glenn), whose home serves as a station on the Underground Railroad, his benevolent cook Mrs. Bean (a charming and funny Michael Russotto), and Samuel Reed (James J. Johnson), a guide for the escaped slaves. With their help, he next pursues the Maine regiment via train and steamship to New York City under the guardianship of Rev. Willow. Unfortunately, Willow is defrauded by a clever pair of con artists, Frank Nibbly (Joe Brack) and his comely sister Kate (Veronica del Cerro).
Subsequent adventures involve Homer progressing towards Gettysburg with Professor Fleabottom (Michael Sazonov) and his Traveling Circus as “Pig Boy.” His questions about his brother’s whereabouts lead to Confederate fears that he is a spy, forcing Homer to make his escape via a surveillance balloon. Finally, Homer finds his brother (Joe Brack, again) just in time to help save him and the Union Army (which even Homer admits is a bit of an exaggeration).
The unlikely yet unreserved success of The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg comes as a result of a series of surprising triumphs. While the story sounds dark and deals with serious topics, both Philbrick’s 2010 Newberry Honor book and Tom Isbell’s adaptation leaven the work with lively comedy and thrilling adventure.
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
Closes December 9, 2012
The Kennedy Center Family Theater
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
1 hour, 10 minutes without intermission
Tickets or call 800-444-1324
It might seem challenging for the twelve-year-old Homer to be portrayed by a 22-year-old college graduate, but Ryan Mercer pulls it off with a youthful face, abundant energy, and a large dollop of charm. Conveying such a broad episodic story with a cast of seven would seem difficult, but effective staging and efficient cast doubling by the other six members of this accomplished troop works wonders.
Most of all, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg would seem to be tricky to translate to the stage. Yet director Gregg Henry and his creative team accomplish marvels through such devices as sepia projections and a mock hot air balloon. The production values in this staging are superlative in every respect.
Director Henry also successfully threads the needle on handling the tone of the work. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg educates youngsters through exposure to the horrors of slavery and war, but Henry uses a gentle touch that keeps the work appropriate for young audiences. The ultimate Gettysburg battle scenes staged with the assistance of fight choreographer Joe Isenberg are serious but enthralling.
A play about boys caught up in the Civil War might not seem like the typical, feel-good family fare often produced during the holiday season. Yet we can all be thankful to live in a nation free from civil war and slavery for nearly a century and a half, and to live in an area where high quality family theatre such as The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is available for a family-friendly price.
Recommended ages: Eight and up (although younger audience members also seemed to enjoy the play)
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg Adapted by Tom Isbell . Based on the book by Rodman Philbrick . Directed by Gregg Henry . Features Joe Brack as Harold Figg/Smelt/Frank Nibbly/Roustabout/Dennett Bobbins/Confederate #2, Veronica del Cerro as Kate Nibbly/Minerva/Confederate #1/Union Soldier, Michael Glenn as Squinton Leach/Mr. Brewster/Steward/Union Sergeant/Captain/Fearsome Sergeant/Union Soldier, James J. Johnson as Samuel Reed, Ryan Mercer as Homer P. Figg, Michael Russotto as J. T. Marston/Mrs. Bean/Mr. Willow/Mysterious Stranger/General Jeb Stuart/Union Soldier, and Michael Sazonov as Sergeant/Stink/Professor Fleabottom/Colonel Chamberlain. Set design by Dan Conway, Costume design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting design by Nancy Schertler, Sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, Properties, Tim Jones, and Fight choreography by Joe Isenberg. Produced by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Steven McKnight