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Mark Twain comes to life

Rumors of Mark Twain’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Find that hard to believe? Then just head to “Mark Twain! On Stage,” which comes to the James W. Warren Citizens Center on Jan. 27.
“He is alive and well,” said Mary Whisonant, publicity chairwoman for the Lincoln County Concert Association. “You will be convinced when you see him.”
“Mark Twain! On Stage” promises the viewer an evening of the author’s biting wit presented by actor and playwright, John Chappell.
The beauty of Twain, says Chappell, is the timelessness of his words. His humor never feels stale.
“It’s because there are certain, just basic, human things,” said Chappell. “‘Human nature doesn’t change very much,’ Twain said, and I like that.”
At the beginning of the performance, a 70-year-old Mark Twain shuffles on stage in his trademark white suit.
It takes hours to perfect the look – Twain’s shock of white hair, bushy mustache and protruding nose.
“I paint very carefully to create what I think works for his complexion and glue on bits of hair,” he said. “I’ve changed the shape of my nose. It’s distinctive.”
Chappell has been performing the role for 37 years, and each decade has required less makeup.
“As I have approached his actual age, I don’t have to add 40 years anymore,” he said.
The actor was first drawn to the role while watching it performed in college.
“I thought it was a great show,” he said.
He appreciated Twain’s universal appeal.
“Twain has a way of talking about the U.S. war in the Philippines, and I might be doing the show when the Vietnam War is going on, and everybody sees it as connected,” he said.
Since college, Chappell has been a working actor performing in theater, radio, film and television. During the ’70s and ’80s he had parts in “Hawaii Five-O,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Matlock” and the movie “Ten” among many others.
He has now retired from show-biz and returned to his small North Carolina hometown where he works as a reporter.
It was in this town that he first discovered Twain while at home sick with the mumps.
“I had read all of my Hardy Boys books and all of the Nancy Drew books in the house,” he said. “And there wasn’t anything else to read except for the classic books you get at Christmas, the books you never ever want to read.”
After picking up “Tom Sawyer,” however, Chappell was hooked. His appreciation for Twain deepened in college.
“I started to realize that these books are funny,” he said. “I hadn’t noticed that when I was 12 – it was an adventure, and everything seemed perfectly reasonable to me.”
He names “Huckleberry Finn” as his favorite.
“It has to be everybody’s favorite,” he said. “There is something in it that is just so essentially America. It’s our racial friendship and divide, both. It’s our understanding of what it is to be male or female.”
Although Chappell has been occasionally inhabiting the body of Twain for nearly 40 years, he never gets sick of the role.
Twain’s work is full of meanings, Chappell said, and the art of acting involves the constant decision making of how to present these meanings.
“I keep finding new choices,” he said.
“Mark Twain! On Stage” comes to Lincolnton Jan. 27 at the Citizens Center. The performance begins at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for students. For more information call 704-732-9055.by Sarah Grano

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