Spy Review: Biloxi Blues at the Church Hill Theatre

Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (John Haas, left) addresses his boot camp squad in Church Hill Theatre’s “Biloxi Blues” –  Top Bunk – Robbie Spray & James Rank; Middle bunk – Timothy Daly & Troy Strootman,  Bottom Bunk – Anthony Daly & Morgan Jung.  Photo by Steve Atkinson

Biloxi Blues, by Neil Simon, is a semi-autobiographical play about young soldiers undergoing basic training during World War II. Directed by Michael Whitehill, it is currently playing at Church Hill Theatre.

Set almost entirely in an Army training camp near Biloxi, Mississippi, the play focuses on six soldiers in one platoon and their hard-nosed drill sergeant. Like other comedies with a military setting, it gains much of its humor by contrasting the raw recruits — a motley crew with different backgrounds and personalities — with the Army’s demand for discipline and adherence to an apparently irrational set of rules.

Originally produced at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway in 1985, Biloxi Blues ran for 524 performances. It is the middle piece in Simon’s “Eugene trilogy,” featuring a young Brooklyn Jew whose experiences roughly follow Simon’s own early life. The other two segments are Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway BoundBiloxi Blues won Tony awards for best play, best actor (Barry Miller as Arnold Epstein) and best director (Gene Saks); Miller also won a Drama Desk award. Others in the original production were Matthew Broderick as Eugene, Simon’s self-portrait character, and William Sadler as drill sergeant Toomey. 

A 1988 film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols, brought back Broderick as Eugene and featured Christopher Walken in the role of Sgt. Toomey.

On the train to boot camp in Biloxi! Photo by Steve Atkinson

While there is a great deal of broad, often profane comedy, the play also has at its core a serious story about growing up and learning about the world. The narrator, Eugene, has ambitions of being a writer, and he keeps a journal in which he writes his impressions of his fellow recruits and their experiences. Right at the beginning, Eugene says that he has four goals for the near future – to fall in love, to lose his virginity, (not necessarily in that order), to become a writer and to make it out of the army alive.  Like much comedy, the play draws its materials from events that may seem far from amusing to those caught up in them, but that with time and experience become funny even to those involved.

Recruits Arnold Epstein, Don Carney, and Eugene Jerome are berated by Sgt. Toomey.     Photo by Jane Jewell

At the center of the play is Arnold Epstein, a gentle misfit who draws the wrath of Sgt. Toomey almost from the minute he arrives in camp. Even though he considers Arnold his closest friend in the army, Eugene can do little more than watch as Epstein is assigned endless KP and latrine duty as a result of his failure to meet the sergeant’s standards. Epstein, for his part, continues to assert his humanity, even as other recruits mock him (and Eugene) for being Jewish.

The plot, on the whole, is episodic. We see the recruits’ first reactions to the demands of Army life and learn their backgrounds and quirks. We follow them through confrontations — one soldier in particular, Wykowski, is especially scornful of the two Jews in the squad — though that attitude softens somewhat throughout the play as the six recruits go from being strangers to being a unit, soldiers together.  We see the six going to visit a prostitute for their first sexual experience. Eventually, all of them — even the sergeant, who has a plate in his head where he was wounded in battle — gain a degree of humanity and sympathy by the end of the play.

Whitehill has assembled a cast dominated by young actors —  — just right, given the age of the characters they are portraying. He said after the opening night performance that the youngest cast member is only 13 while the oldest is in his early 40s,  most are in their teens or early twenties. Almost all have some previous theatrical experience, though this is the Church Hill debut for several of them. While there were a few first-night glitches, the performance was, on the whole, up to the high standards local audiences have come to expect.  Be sure to read the Director’s Notes in the Play Bill as he gives some interesting information on the production and using memoir as a narrative technique.

Whitehill also noted that he broke in the young cast by having them do push-ups as punishment for arriving late to rehearsals — 15 push-ups for each minute late! It was all good-natured, Whitehill said, with the young actors often running in just on time, pointing at their watches and shouting “I’m here! I’m here!” Not only did it improve promptness, it got the recruits in shape to perform push-ups at the sergeant’s command during the show! 

Troy Strootman, who has appeared at the Garfield Center and with Shore Shakespeare, makes his CHT debut as Eugene. He effectively strikes the balance between the character’s youthful naivete and his innate intelligence and insight into his fellow recruits — this is, after all, someone who is going to grow up to become Neil Simon. A good job in an important part.

Robert Spray takes the role of Arnold Epstein, in many ways the focus of the play’s main drama. He brings out the awkward recruit’s genuine distaste for the dehumanizing aspects of military training, and makes his confrontations with the sergeant appropriately comic.

John Haas, a CHT veteran, is well cast as Sgt. Toomey, who turns out to be a more complex and sympathetic character than the stereotypical drill sergeant he appears to be when the soldiers arrive at boot camp. Haas is convincing as the hard-nosed drillmaster, but when the opportunity arises for the character to demonstrate genuine concern for his men, he makes the switch believable – not an easy thing to do!

Daisy and Eugene dance at the USO. (Kendall Davis & Troy Strootman with Carney (Morgan Jung) and hostess Scarlett Chappell dancing in background)    Photo by Jane Jewell

Daisy Hannigan, Eugene’s love interest, is played by Kendall Davis, a 2o16 Washington College graduate who is appearing in her fourth CHT production. She convincingly projects the sweetness and innocence of the Catholic school girl who meets the soldier at a USO dance, winning him over with her knowledge of the literary world he aches to become part of. A very warm performance, given an extra dimension by Davis’s dancing.

Brothers Anthony and Timothy Daly play Roy Seldridge and Joseph Wykowsky, two of the recruits in the squad. The sons of Jeff Daly, who has many CHT credits in his own right, they give solid performances. Timothy’s character, at first a somewhat dim-witted anti-Semite, comes to recognize that he is part of a team, and all the members need to work together if they are to survive the coming ordeal of wartime. Anthony’s character thinks of himself as the comedian of the bunch, though he’s not as witty as he thinks.

Morgan Jung and Jeffrey Rank fill out the boot camp squad with portrayals of Don Carney and James Hennessy. Carney sings — off key! — in his sleep, to the annoyance of his bunk mates. and Hennesey, who is the oldest recruit and who claims to be part African-American, comes across as slightly more attuned to Army life.  Good jobs by both.

The boys are initiated in the mysteries of sex by the local prostitute Rowena , played by Christine Kinlock. Biloxi Blues Photo by Jane Jewell

Christine Kinlock, who has become a regular in the local theater scene, has a meaty if brief part as Rowena, a prostitute. Again, the character, who might have been a stereotype, turns out to have depths that Kinlock nicely brings out.

Scarlett Chapell appears as another USO hostess, dancing with the soldiers. The character is not in the original script, but Chapell, who is in her first show at CHT, makes good use of the opportunity to create a character without speaking a word.  Beautiful dancing in a shadowed background.

Given that the majority of the cast is in uniform for the entire length of the play, the only real chance for costuming flash is in the three women’s outfits — which nicely distinguish the three characters.  Both USO girls are wearing distinctive 1940s dress styles. Note that the recruits are all wearing realistic, WWII “dogtags” around their necks.

The sets are quite effective, creating a believable 1940s army camp and surrounding scenes. The main set is a surprisingly realistic two-sided unit with the soldier’s three-tiered bunks on one side and a latrine on the other. The set not only swings around to give two different scenes, it rolls offstage when a less specific scene is needed — for example the open floor of the USO dance.  A side portion of the stage is used for a train car, Toomey’s office, and Rowena’s bedroom. While not as spectacular as some of CHT’s past sets, it does an excellent job of creating the atmosphere of the time and place. Kudos to Whitehill and Brian Draper, who designed and built it.

Not surprisingly, given its subject and setting, Biloxi Blues has its share of adult situations and language — and a good number of the characters share the prejudices of the time and express them in the language of the era. Parents might think twice about bringing very young children to the production. But adult audiences, or even teens, will appreciate the larger message of the play — how growing up involves surviving harsh experiences and making something bigger than any one individual’s feelings or abilities. And there is plenty to laugh about, along the way.

Biloxi Blues runs through Feb. 4, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students, with special prices for groups of ten or more. The audience was packed on opening night and there were also  sizable crowds for the Saturday evening and Sunday matinee of the opening week.  For reservations, call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit the theater website.

Photo Credits: Steve Atkinson and Jane Jewell

Biloxi Blues second side of reversible, rolling set.         Photo credit: Jane Jewell



Avalon’s Weekend Marquee Update

The Talbot Spy sharing with our readers each week the MCTV produced Weekend Marquee with Tim Weigand as host. We hope you enjoy this short two minute preview of what’s coming up over the next few days.

The Legacy of Fireworks at Washington College Transitions to Sculpture

An artist’s rendering of “Radiant Echo,” the light sculpture to be installed  at Washington College as seen from the green

Former Washington College President Joseph McLain is remembered for many things – but his most enduring legacy may well be the tradition of fireworks displays at the college.

Joseph McLain shares a laugh with students

McLain, a chemistry professor with a lifelong interest in pyrotechnics, attended Washington College as an undergraduate. After college, he served in the World War II chemical corps, working on such projects as an improved hand grenade fuse and underwater cutting torches. After the war, he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Johns Hopkins, then returned to Washington College to teach. Over the course of his career, he made the college a center for the study of fireworks, both in the academic community and in the commercial fireworks industry. His work focused, among other things, on improving fireworks ignition systems so as to avoid timing errors, which can be dangerous as well as spoiling the artistic effect of a display. He became the 22nd president of the college in 1973 and served until his death in 1981 — the only alumnus ever to fill the position. McLain was also responsible for establishing the annual Fourth of July fireworks show in Chestertown, which he staged on the Washington College campus.

John Conkling

In 1969, McLain hired one of his former students – John Conkling, also a Hopkins Ph.D. – to join the chemistry faculty at the college. McLain steered Conkling toward the study of pyrotechnics, which resulted in the first federal safety standards for fireworks, jointly created by the two and enacted in 1976 by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. In 1985, Conkling resigned his full-time teaching position to become Executive Director of the APA – a position he held until 1998. He continued to teach adjunct courses without taking a salary, and hosted the annual Summer Pyrotechnics Seminars at Washington College.

Largely because of the legacy of McLain and Conkling, fireworks displays have become a tradition at Washington College, welcoming students back to campus in the fall and celebrating graduation and other occasions such as the inauguration of current president Kurt Landgraf. Residents near the college often come out to see the shows, which are visible and audible from a wide area of the town.

Chestertown also had a history of fireworks before McLain, most notably with the Kent Manufacturing plant, which, beginning in 1941, produced defense materiel for World War II and then added fireworks to its line after the war. After his return to Chestertown, McLain became a partner in the business, along with founder Tony Fabrizi, whom he had met during his time in the service. That venture came to an end when a fire and explosion destroyed the plant in 1954. But McLain continued to work with the pyrotechnics industry, with a special interest in safety standards.

Now, to create a more permanent monument to McLain, Conkling and their pyrotechnics work, McLain’s daughter Lynn McLain, is raising funds for “Radiant  Echo,” an innovative art installation planned for the atrium of the Toll Science Center at the college. Intended to serve as an enduring art piece for the college and the town of Chestertown, “Radant Echo,” designed by Flux Studio of Baltimore, will be a three- dimensional grid of LED fixtures suspended in the 3-story atrium. The fixtures, which will hang to within 14 feet of the floor, will flash and flicker in emulation of a fireworks display, with chrome spheres suspended within the field to reflect and amplify the lights. According to a prospectus for the program, “As with fireworks, spectators will know that something will happen, but they won’t know exactly what, or exactly when.”

An artist’s rendering of”Radiant Echo” as seen from inside the atrium

The prospectus adds, “The choreography of the sculpture will draw from both the chemical behavior of fireworks and the phenomenal experience of observing them, contrasting familiar aerial exploding with inward collapsing at the atomic scale.” It will be programmed to operate in two states, depending on the time of day. Its default, resting state will feature short bursts of light at the outer edges of the sculpture, a “momentary flickering at the corner of one’s eye that vanishes almost as soon as it appears.” In its nighttime, or active, state, the tentative flickerings will “crescendo and then explode, piercing the darkness and dissolving into a cascading shower of light. At times the whole sculpture will erupt in a cacophony of explosions, recalling the grand finale of a fireworks show.” The displays will be visible from the campus green outside Toll Science Center and from Washington Avenue.as well as to those inside the building.

“Radiant Echo” will also have an educational function. Glenn Shrum, who designed the sculpture, plans to teach an interdisciplinary workshop while the piece is being installed. Also, college faculty will be able to use the sculpture in their classes on physics, chemistry, psychology, computer programming, and art. And as part of its installation, there will be a symposium on fireworks drawing on many different disciplines. There will also be a public honoring of Dr. Conkling and his wife Sandy.

Lynn McLain said on Jan. 7 that she hopes fundraising for the project will be completed within the year. Installation of the project is expected to take 14 to 16 months, she said. The final contacts for the construction of the project are in process.

To help promote the project, Lynn McLain has written an illustrated coffee-table book, For the Love of Fireworks, published in 2017. Proceeds from the book will help to fund the creation of “Radiant Echo.” The book is full of fascinating detail and would make a great gift. The book explores the history and cultural associations of fireworks, and includes a series of trivia questions such as when fireworks were invented, where the largest fireworks display on record took place, components used in their manufacture, and so forth. For the Love of Fireworks is available online at $56.99 or from Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.  Or buy the book, hard or softcover, directly from author McLain at http://www.loveoffireworks.com .   The price is the same and a direct purchase, McLain said, will result in a larger contribution to the project.

Fundraising is underway to cover the estimated $250,000 cost of building and installing “Raidant Echo.” McLain said on Jan 7 that the campaign had raised just over $100,000. To contribute to the effort, contact Lynn McLain at 410-778-4515 or lmclain@ubalt.edu.  You can also contribute through the Washington College Office of Advancement at 410-778-7801. Checks can be made out to the Washington College Office of Advancement, with “Atrium Sculpture Project” in the memo line. The address is Washington College Office of Advancement,  300 Washington Ave.,  Chestertown MD 21620.

And then look forward to fabulous firework displays on Washington College campus, both real and simulated via Radiant Echo.




Biloxi Blues Opens at Church Hill Theatre on January 19

Nothing chases away the winter doldrums like the heat and hilarity of Biloxi Blues, one of Neil Simon’s funniest comedies.  Based on Simon’s own memories of boot camp in Mississippi during World War II, the play finds humor in the coming of age experiences of young draftees way outside their comfort zones. As members of the Greatest Generation rapidly leave us, it’s good to remember that our fathers and grandfathers probably were once just as rowdy, randy and rambunctious as the guys Simon served with. Michael Whitehill, who directed last season’s most serious drama (Doubt), shows he’s equally adept with the fast paced verbal exchanges and physical humor that make Biloxi Blues so much fun. His cast has obviously enjoyed the chance to inhabit Simon’s memorable characters.

Clockwise from top right: James Rank, Troy Strootman, Morgan Jung, Anthony Daly, Timothy Daly, Robert Spray. Photo by Steve Atkinson.

While our forebears of course never cursed, these soldiers do! They also engage in activities not included in letters home to their mothers. Older teens might learn some useful lessons about the transition to adulthood but this show is not recommended for elementary and middle school students.

John Haas, often a “good guy” in CHT plays, takes on the role of Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey, the drill instructor who finds sadistic pleasure in breaking young men to mold them into his kind of soldier. Troy Strootman plays Eugene Morris Jerome, a bookish youth based loosely on Simon himself. Robbie Spray, last seen at CHT as the murderous Leonard Vole in Witness for the Prosecution, portrays Arnold Epstein, a draftee who is Toomey’s mentally tough nemesis.  The other soldiers in the barracks are Anthony Daly as Roy Selridge, Timothy Daly as Joseph Wykowski, Morgan Jung as Don Carney, and Jeff Rank as James Hennesey.  Since soldiers spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about women, Biloxi Blues gives us a couple of archetypes. Kendell Irene Davis plays Daisy Hannigan, the sweet young woman every soldier dreams of coming home to and Christine Kinlock plays Rowena, a woman with no last name but quite a past.  Interestingly, both actresses played opposite types in the recent production of Witness for the Prosecution.  The cast is rounded out with Scarlett Chappell, playing a Junior Hostess at a USO dance.

Eugene Jerome (Troy Strootman) enjoys a high-spirited dance with the beautiful Daisy Hannigan (Kendell Irene Davis). Photo by Steve Atkinson.

Michael Whitehill has assembled an experienced and creative production team for Biloxi Blues.  Sylvia Maloney pulls together the before-the-show-opens details as Producer and Steve Atkinson wrangles the behind-the-scenes details as Stage Manager. Working with Designer Brian Draper, Whitehill designed and constructed the set. Once again, Douglas Kaufmann, the master of the light booth, put together the lighting plot. Laura Crabtree, Katie Sardo, Wendy Sardo, and Janice Selby complete the back stage team.

Biloxi Blues will open at Church Hill Theatre on January 19, 2018, and run through February 4, with weekend performances at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 pm on Sundays.  Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students, with special prices for groups of ten or more. CHT offers 2 for the price of 1 tickets on opening night, Friday, January 19, to those who reserve by phone. Reservations can be made by calling the box office at 410-556-6003 or online at www.churchhilltheatre.org.

Avalon’s Weekend Marquee Update

The Talbot Spy sharing with our readers each week the MCTV produced Weekend Marquee with Tim Weigand as host. We hope you enjoy this short two minute preview of what’s coming up over the next few days.

Mid-Shore Arts: Elizabeth Casqueiro and her Superheroes

Needless to say, every artist has their own particular journey that leads them to produce their distinctive work, but it’s hard to imagine better circumstances that prepared Talbot County-based Elizabeth Casqueiro for a second life as a painter.

An architect by training, a senior management executive at the World Bank by vocation, Elizabeth led the bank’s building division with the enviable task of working with world-class architects on the design and construction of dozens of buildings throughout the world. But when she hit mandatory retirement at 62, she didn’t think twice about returning to her real passion for drawing and painting.

From that moment on, Elizabeth has used her studios in Washington and at the Davis Street Art Center and Easton to create landscapes that reconnect her childhood superhero comic book style impressions of the United States when growing up Portugal and now the American she has become through the use of form and color.

The Spy had a chance to spend a few minutes with Elizabeth at the Davis Street a few months ago before a major art opening and Europe to get a better sense of what this vision means.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. The Academy Art Museum will be having an exhibit of Elizabeth Casqueiro’s work in April. For more information about Elizabeth’s art please go here. In Chestertown, she is represented by Massoni Gallery


Mid-Shore Arts: Photographers Hunter Harris and H. Robins Hollyday in Contrast

It might be a bit of a stretch to say there are comparisons with Eastern Shore native and photographer Hunter Harris’ exhibit at the Oxford Community Center entitled Above the Bay and artist Emily Lombardo’s current show at the Academy Art Museum, but not by much.

Both Emily and Hunter have gone back in time and captured contemporary impressions of similar subjects that two great masters in their field documented years before. One is the artist Francisco de Goya from the 17th Century, and H. Robins Hollyday, the famed Eastern Shore photographer from the 1920s.

In Hunter’s case, he worked with the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and the Talbot Historical Society a few years ago to produce large reproductions of Hollyday’s stunning aerial photography and matching it with his own images of these unique landscapes. The results of both men’s work can now be seen side-by-side at the OCC until the end of the year.

The Spy caught up with Hunter yesterday afternoon to talk about the project.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. For more information about the Oxford Community Center please go here

Mid-Shore Arts: A Soothsayer Counterpoint to Goya’s Darkness with Emily Lombardo

When the Spy interviewed artist Emily Lombardo a few days before her opening of The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo last month, it was surprising to see that the Academy Art Museum had also installed another collection of her work in its hallway.  The purpose seemed to serve as a fitting counterpoint to the sobering aspects of her three year project to match Goya’s stinging social commentary with her own disappointments with our contemporary times.

With The Soothsayers: 3D Works on Paper, Emily moves back to some of her early roots working with paper, printmaking, and her life long fascination with the classic fortune-telling tool, the enduring 8 Ball from her youth. And by calling the project The Soothsayers, she brings back a 14th-century term that means “truth” and/or “reality.”

The Spy spent a few minutes with Emily talking about The Soothsayers and the sense of maturity and time with that comes with this youthful clairvoyance device.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. For more information about the Academy Art Museum and The Soothsayers: 3D Works on Paper please go here

Spy Minute: The Avalon’s Nick Richards and the Rewriting of ‘A Christmas Carol’

Perhaps one of the reasons the Avalon works so well is the recent example of employee Nick Richards. On his lengthy job description, Nick is required to run the Foundation’s “free access” cable television station and also manages most of the technical aspects of the theater. That sounds reasonable enough until one learns that he was recently asked to entirely rewrite one of the great classics of literature, film and stage, A Christmas Carol, in his spare time.

In today’s tender world of employee relations, Nick might have had a good case for legal action, but in Avalon World, this is not only a reasonable request, but one Nick agreed to in a New York minute.

Tasked in making the Dickens creation a bit more relevant for a 21st-century audience, as well as creating more characters so this community production could include as many in the cast as possible, Nick, in our Spy Minute, reflects on the classic through the lens of living in the year 2017.

This video is approximately one minute in length. For ticket information for A Christmas Carol at the Avalon please go here


Checking in on the Avalon with Al Bond and Jessica Bellis

The last time the Spy had a chat with the Avalon Foundation folks was approximately two years ago at a time of real celebration. After months of political debate, some of it being slightly harsh by Talbot County standards, and good old nail biting, the staff and volunteers accomplished their long-term goal of buying Easton’s major performance theater on Dover Street.

And while there was a perceptible sense of relief that this lengthy process had reached its end, the Avalon was still not out of the woods. Not only did the organization face $2 million in deferred maintenance for the building itself, last minute changes in the sales agreement had added almost another half million to their capital fund requirements. It was hard for anyone involved not to be intimidated by the need to raise a staggering amount of public and private support and very quickly.

Fast-forward to the end of 2017 and both Al Bond and Jessica Bellis, the management team at the Avalon Foundation, don’t hesitate in saying that the last two years has been the best on record for the Foundation and its newly acquired theatre and listening room.

Not only were the capital funds successfully raised, but both the primary stage and the Stolz Listening room are now averaging 150 performances a year as well as hosting 30 outside organizations with an additional 90 events. At the same time, the Foundation continued to break records for the Plein Art festival as well as maintaining its 4th of July celebration, sponsorship of Easton Farmers Market, and expansion of MCTV programming.

If there were any negative aspects of the last 24 months, it has been the mild frustration expressed by Al and Jessica that the vast majority of the building’s most significant improvements are invisible to Avalon patrons.  With such successful completion of such unsexy projects of repointing the brickwork, improving backstage equipment, replacing heating and air conditioning, hardly any of this is noticeable to the theatergoer.

The Spy caught up with Al and Jessica last week to talk about the last two years. We also discussed the remaining projects, many of which will be more obvious to its guests, like the renovation of its public bathrooms and new paint for the theater. They also hint at more exciting programs to come that may go beyond their primary physical location as well as having high confidence that the Mid-Shore region will continue to support live performance for many years to come.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about the Avalon Foundation please go here