Sept. 23 2009 12:00 AM

Actor evokes spirit of Samuel Clemens with subtle performance

“You can’t hit a dog with an Irishman!” If that isn’t already one of your favorite catchphrases when discussing the role of providence in life, it will be after seeing “An Evening with Mark Twain.”

The Capital Theater Works production is based on an actual lecture delivered by Twain in Lansing in 1877. Kevin Burnham, the company’s artistic director, reprises his role as Twain, which he has played many times over the years in varied productions, and practice makes perfect. Burnham has honed his Twain persona, turning in a masterful performance.

Twain often toured the country, delivering lectures that reflected the zeitgeist of the nation delivered with a folksy but sharp wit.

For some, it might be tempting to overplay such a figure, going for the big laughs, but Burnham captures Twain’s legendary charm and wit without creating a caricature. He is subtle in his performance, using well-timed pauses and deadpan stillness instead of exaggerated facial expressions to emphasize his punchlines. While some may miss their cues to laugh, those who follow closely are rewarded with some honest-to-goodness guffaws.

Burnham’s set and Tyler Rick’s lighting are appropriately simple. The set includes a desk and globe on one side and a small dock on the other, from which Twain recounts stories of his childhood in Hannibal, Mo. Lighting changes isolate Twain at the most touching, dramatic moments of his monologue. The look and layout of the Ledges Playhouse contributes well to creating an authentic atmosphere for an 1877 lecture.

With a runtime of just one hour, “Twain” leaves one wanting more. This is a must see performance and a great opportunity to pick up conversation starters, like this one: “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Discuss.

‘An Evening with Mark Twain’

Sept. 27 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday Capital
TheaterWorks, Ledges Playhouse, Fitzgerald Park, Grand Ledge FREE,
donations encouraged (517) 627-7351