Different Twain Perspective Featured In Germantown Community Theatre’s ‘Is He Dead?’

By JONATHAN DEVIN | The Memphis News

ILL-FATED ROMANCE: Jerry Wakefield, right, as Papa Leroux, woos Jeff White, playing widow Daisy Tillou, unaware “she” is really artist Jean-Francois Millet in Germantown Community Theatre’s production of Mark Twain’s comedy “Is He Dead?” -- PHOTO BY JOHN RONE

Many great artists had one or more works that never saw the light of day until after the artist’s own death. Germantown Community Theatre (GCT) hopes to use one such unsung masterpiece to show a very different side of a legendary American author.

GCT opened “Is He Dead?” by Mark Twain on Sept. 11 for a three-weekend run, but audiences expecting tales of river rafts and runaway slaves will be disappointed.

“The play is hilarious,” said Marler Stone, the play’s director. “I believe it falls into the category of farce, but there’s a lot of slapstick in it.”

The plot is a fictional account of the real-life artist Jean-François Millet, who in the play fakes his own death in order to increase demand and prices for his paintings. Millet, played by actor Jeff White, then reappears as his widowed twin sister, Daisy Tillou, and attempts to use his newfound fortunes to help a debt-beleaguered girlfriend.

The play, originally written in 1898, was found in the Mark Twain Papers archive at the University of California at Berkeley by a Twain scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin. The play eventually was published and adapted by the contemporary playwright David Ives.

“I found it really interesting that this was adapted by David Ives,” said Brent Davis, executive director of GCT. “It’s bridging the gaps of generations of people familiar with Mark Twain’s work as well as a newer playwright known for sharp wit and a neat approach to theater. That’s one of the most interesting things about the production.”

The Ives adaptation had a successful Broadway run in 2007, but Twain, like his Millet, never saw the play produced.

But if a Twain play involving cross-dressing, mistaken identities and wayward love sounds a bit off the mark for the author of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Davis said “Is He Dead?” reflects a different time in Twain’s life.

“One of the books (Twain) wrote toward the end of his life, ‘The Mysterious Stranger,’ was written at a time when things were going south in his life,” Davis said. “He had such a successful life, but at the end things were going wrong in his family life. This play came out of that period when his sarcasm was at its peak.”

Davis, who just took the reins at GCT in July, was excited to learn of the play’s selection as he had starred in Theatre Memphis’ production of “An Evening with David Ives” several years ago.

“And I’m a big fan of Mark Twain too, so having this as the first show after my coming on board, I thought it was neat,” Davis said.

Stone enlisted White, a former stand-up comedian who most recently appeared on stage in Theatre Memphis’ production of “Curtains,” to tackle the dual roles of Millet and Tillou.

Randal Cooper, Drew Massengale, Kent Mathis, Tripp Hurst, Emily Peckham, Louise Levin, Jerry Wakefield, Angela Fredriksson, Julie Marshall and Robert Moore round out the cast.

Stone directed last year’s production of “Born Yesterday” and has appeared onstage at GCT several times himself.

“I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with acting, but I love directing,” Stone said. “It’s so challenging. You’ve got thoughts and input on everything. I have to have some project like this going all the time to keep my sanity. I like to make sure everything is perfect.”

“Is He Dead” runs through Sept. 27. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and senior citizens. Call the GCT box office at 754-2680 for tickets or visit www.germantowncomunitytheatre.org for more information.