Spy Review: Finding Family “On Golden Pond” by Peter Heck

“On Golden Pond” Cast & Crew Kneeling – Pat Fee & Kathy Jones Standing – Steve Atkinson, Paul Briggs, Nita Wieczoreck,, Brian McGunigle,, Bonnie Hill, Jeff Daly, Doug Kaufmann, Heather Oland, John Crook, Meg Lenher      Photo by Jane Jewell

“On Golden Pond,” now playing at Church Hill Theatre, is the story of an old married couple enjoying a vacation at their Maine summer home. It’s a poignant family story with characters who love one another but need to negotiate rough spots and deal with ghosts from their past.

The play by Ernest Thompson is probably most familiar from the 1981 film version in which the lead parts were played by Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, with Jane Fonda as their daughter. Jane Fonda acquired the film rights to the play, seeing it as an ideal vehicle for her and her father, for whom it was his last appearance on-screen. Henry Fonda and Hepburn both won Oscars for their performances – his first, her fourth.

Thompson’s theatrical version, which premiered in 1979, featured Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen and ran for 382 performances; Craig Anderson directed. The Church Hill production is directed by Bonnie Hill.

The plot revolves around Norman and Ethel Thayer, who arrive at their country house in April, finding it in need of repairs. It becomes evident early that Norman is beginning to lose his short-term memory. Although he is retired from a position as an English professor, he makes a production of searching for jobs in the local paper – one gets the impression he is doing it to tease Ethel, who has evidently had to put up with such behavior more than once in the past. Later, Charlie, the mailman – whom they’ve known since he was a teenager – drops by and, over a cup of coffee, reminisces about the Thayer’s daughter Chelsea, on whom he had a crush when they were both young. And as it happens, he brings a letter from Chelsea, who promises to visit later that summer, bringing her new boyfriend Bill and his young son Billy.

Chelsea introduces young Billy to her parents Ethel and Norman.      Photo by Steve Atkinson

The plot revolves around the relationships between the central couple and the various visitors who come to their lakeside home. Norman’s sometimes prickly exterior is balanced by Ethel’s ability to smooth things over and jolly him along. Chelsea, on the other hand, still nurses resentment over the way her father treated her when she was growing up. Chelsea’s new boyfriend Bill refuses to get drawn into the mind games Norman plays with everyone. On the other hand, young Billy, who stays with the Thayers while Chelsea and Bill vacation in Europe, soon finds himself adapting to the older couple’s ways and the country lifestyle.  Billy loves going fishing with Norman — and teaching the older man the latest teenage slang.

In the Church Hill production, Brian McGunigle and Nita Wieczoreck are cast as the central characters. McGunigle, who is making his CHT debut as Norman, has numerous credits with the Tred Avon Players, including “A Man of No Importance,” and with Shore Shakespeare, including “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He makes the lead character–whose biting wit and cynical worldview might make him unpleasant company in real life–sympathetic and in the end, quite likable.

Wieczoreck is familiar to CHT audiences from numerous appearances in everything from musicals and comedies to dramatic roles, including “Is He Dead?” and “Oliver,” as well as backstage work, especially in costuming. She is warm and outgoing in the role of Ethel, putting up with her husband’s cranky side while showing concern for his lapses of memory; a good choice for the role. A particularly fun scene is where she and her daughter join in singing the songs of the summer camp on Golden Pond that they both attended as young girls.

Ethel and Norman listen to the loons and watch the sunset on Golden Pond      Photo by Jane Jewell

Paul Briggs, who is establishing himself as a versatile character actor both at CHT and the Garfield, takes the role of Charlie the mailman, a local institution. He does a fine Down East accent, and effectively shows a character who is neither bright nor a deep thinker without stereotyping him as a local yokel.

Heather Oland, another CHT regular, has also appeared with Shore Shakespeare, most recently as Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She gives a strong performance as Chelsea, conveying both the warmth she feels for her mother and the tensions with her father. She calls her father “Norman” not “dad” while always calling her mother “Mommy.” While the role is less central than the two parents, it brings together several of the play’s key themes, and Oland’s performance makes the emotional connections clear.

Jeff Daly, takes the role of Bill Ray, Chelsea’s new boyfriend – a California dentist with a son from a previous marriage. The character is a bit reserved, not really hitting it off with Norman. The tension between the two is a prime example of the competitive stance Norman seems to bring to every relationship, whether in Monopoly games with Ethel, fishing with young Billy, or his entire relationship with Chelsea.

Norman and Billy prepare for a day of fishing on the lake while Ethel looks on.   Photo by Steve Atkinson

The role of Billy Ray Jr. is played by John Crook, a veteran of CHT’s Green Room Gang summer theater camp. His experience shows itself in a solid performance. He captures the young boy’s varying moods, from his initial boredom at the idea of spending the summer with two elderly people to his eventual enthusiastic joining Norman in competition over who can catch the biggest fish.

The setting for the play – a single room in the Thayer’s summer home – is quite appealing. The audience can see through the windows as characters enter and leave by the front door, and the lighting of the sky outside the windows evokes the mood of scenes with great effect. And close observers may notice a photo of Hepburn to one side of the living room. Kudos to Earl Lewin for the design, Carmen Grasso and Tom Rhodes for the construction, and Doug Kaufmann for the lighting design. The soundtrack by Patrick Fee – with a recurring motif of loon calls – adds to the overall mood, as well.

Mock-up of the set made by Earl Lewin         Photo by Jane Jewell

“On Golden Pond” will naturally appeal to older audiences, many of whom will see echoes of their own lives in the main characters’ relationships.  But younger people will also relate to this story of growing up and growing old.  “On Golden Pond” resonates with anyone who has fond memories of a summer spent at the lake or beach or had a special time with grandparents. A warm, nostalgic play with a fine director and cast to bring out the emotional nuances of the script,  this is a production any theater-lover will want to see.

The play will continue for two more weekends, through April 22. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, with a $5 discount for CHT members; admission for students is $10. For reservations, call 410-556-5003 or visit the theater website, www.churchilltheatre.org.

Norman and Charlie the postman and Ethel      Photo by Jane Jewell

Norman calls the operator.      Photo by Jane Jewell

The March for Our Lives in Chestertown Report

The march started at noon on High St at the corner of Mill St. in front of the old elementary school now the Kent County offices building.      Photo by Peter Heck.

Chestertown’s March for Our Lives was held on Saturday, March 24 to coincide with the big national march in Washington, DC. The local event was one of more than 800 nationwide and around the world in response to gun violence in schools, especially the murder of 17 students in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day earlier this year.

Around 500 marchers assembled at noon in front of the Kent County government office on High Street, then proceeded down High Street and Cross Street to Wilmer Park, where they heard speakers and musical selections. Marchers, carrying signs and banners, remained on sidewalks so as not to interfere with traffic. The line of marchers was at least two blocks long as it made its way through town. Along the route, many of them chanted, “Enough is enough,” and “Hey hey, ho ho, school shooting’s got to go,” referring to the epidemic of shootings that have plagued the country in recent years.

At the park, Paul Tue, one of the organizers of the march, greeted the crowd and invited them to move closer to Hynson Pavilion, where a PA system was set up. Tue, who works with local youth as one of the founders of the Bayside HOYAS, said he was “blown away” by the turnout. He told attendees that if anyone was overcome with the emotions of the event, there were several therapists on hand for them to talk to. He asked the therapists to raise their hands so people would know who and where they were in the audience.

Tue said there had been 209 school shootings since the Columbine massacre in 1999, and gave a list of several of the more notorious, concluding with the Parkland shooting and the murder of a schoolgirl by a classmate just a few days ago in St. Mary’s County here in Maryland. “I believe I live in the greatest country in the world,” Tue said, “but today is a day to put our point across.” He asked how many shootings would have to take place on Capitol Hill itself before lawmakers were willing to change the laws governing weapons. He said there was a booth set up to register voters at the rally and urged attendees to call their representatives in Congress and the Maryland General Assembly.

Barbie Glenn, who acted as master of ceremonies for the event, then took the microphone to introduce the speakers.

First up was Dr. Kathryn Seifert, CEO of Eastern Shore Psychological Services. “We know the way to prevent violence,” she said, It will require identifying young people at risk and providing services to help them. A lot of scientific research has been done, and the causes — though complex – are clear. It’s not just mental illness, but “a perfect storm of multiple problems.” Most school shooters are white males, who find their guns at home – not at gun shows. The majority of shooters were identified as unstable before they picked up a gun, she said. She recommended a mental health program in every school, to allow evaluation and early treatment of the problems that lead to gun violence. The U.S. has the second highest rate of child abuse worldwide, and is in the top five nations for its rate of sexual abuse of children, she said. Both have been shown to cause personality disorders including violent tendencies in later life. The victims need treatment “before something happens,” she said. “Let’s get started.”

A trio consisting of Clark Bjorke on guitar, Phil Dutton on keyboard, and Mary Simmons sang a version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” with new lyrics targeting the problem of gun violence. The group later returned for two other numbers, including Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Many crowd members sang along with the familiar protest songs from the 1960s.

Taking the microphone next was a group of Kent County Middle School students, Alana Fithian Wilson, Riley Glenn, Tilera Wright, and Ty-Juan Billingslea. They are members of Students Talking About Racism, a group formed after a racial incident at the school. Each gave a personal reaction to the issue of gun violence, with an equal helping of emotion and evidence. Wilson said that violence is one of America’s biggest problems, with racism as a leading cause. “We need people like you to get involved,” she told the crowd. “It’s time to take a stand, and it needs to be unified.”

Photo by Jeff Weber

Glenn said that gun violence has a devastating impact on American youth, backing the assertation with statistics. Particularly telling was the observation that more students have been killed in U.S. schools since Columbine in 1999 than American soldiers killed in combat since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Billingslea said guns are the third leading cause of childhood deaths, with 40 percent the result of suicides. Black children are three times as likely to die from a shooting as their white peers. Exposure to gun violence leads to greater likelihood of drug or alcohol use and criminal activity later in life, he said.
Wright said students at KCMS are being asked to perform “active shooter” drills. She said she would like to see more school resource officers and metal detectors at school. Parents need to take their children’s concerns seriously, she said. “Politicians need to pass stricter gun laws,” she concluded.
Tue praised the students’ passionate advocacy. “Activism has no age limit,” he said.
The concluding speaker was Grenville Whitman of Rock Hall, representing Kent County Citizens to Prevent Gun Violence. Gun violence kills Americans every day, Whitman said. “We’re here to petition our government for redress,” he said, noting that the right to do so is guaranteed by the Consitution. “It’s also our right not to be shot and killed,” he added and went on to say that the same right extends to our families, our children and our neighbors. “It’s everyone’s right.” He noted that some think that gun ownership is equally important, and the issue is being fought out in Congress and 50 state legislatures, with the Maryland General Assembly passing some sensible firearms regulations in the current session, making the state one of the safest in the nation. Whitman noted that the local assembly delegation voted for a ban on “bump stocks,” which transform semi-automatic firearms into fully-automatic weapons.  He said the delegates should be congratulated for their votes, noting that they will undoubtedly be criticized for it by pro-gun constituents.

Photo by Jeff Weber

Relaxing after the march outside of Sam’s coffee shop are Leah Schell, Brook Schumann, Ilex Hoy (on lap) and Japhy Hoy (holding sign).      Photo by Jane Jewell

“Make America Safe Again” made and carried by Penny Block.      Photo by Jane Jewell

Whitman noted that 2018 is an election year and urged participants in the march to register and vote. The crowd responded by chanting, “Vote, vote!” Many local offices are up for election, Whitman said, noting the presence of several elected officials and candidates in the crowd, including County Commissioner Ron Fithian and commission candidate Tom Timberman, as well as Andy Meehan, a candidate for State’s Attorney. Whitman said voters should ask all candidates about gun safety, and cast their votes accordingly. “(Rep.) Andy Harris…” he began — to be interrupted by a loud chorus of “Boos”– “Andy Harris is the only Maryland congressman to accept NRA donations. “Vote him out! Vote him out,” the crowd responded.

A last-moment addition to the list of speakers was Casey McQueen of Dover, Delaware, who said he had come to the march because students in his school had been shot. “Blow guns away,” he said, to applause.

Bishop Charles Tilghman, head of the Kent County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, closed the rally with a prayer. He urged the audience to continue rallying and marching to attain the goals of a country free of gun violence.

There was a multitude of signs in the crowd – both printed and hand-made – with clever and often very pointed slogans.  Some were slogans that are being used nationally while others represented the heartfelt responses of the individual marcher.  Slogans included “Protect Our Kids, Not Guns”, “Bullets Are Not School Supplies”, “Make America Safe Again”, “We Deserve to Live”, “Students Demand Action”, “Moms Demand Action”, “Civilians Don’t Need Assault Weapons”, “Love Not Guns”, and “Fear Has No Place in Schools”.

The Chestertown march was reportedly the only one on the Eastern Shore, though there were a couple in Delaware.The  Chestertown event drew over 500 people, which amounts to approximately 10% of Chestertown’s population.  However, not all participants were from Chestertown or Kent County.  Several marchers, including some from the Unitarian Universalist church, came from Easton to take part.  Marchers were there from other Maryland counties and from Delaware. The event in D.C. was estimated as high as 800,000 strong, making it the largest single-day march in the city’s history. Across the country, in addition to the originating Washington, D.C. march, there were marches and other events in most of the major US cities including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Boston, Baltimore, Seattle,  Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis. Every state had at least one “March for Our Lives” event. Around the world, there were many more with most but not all in Europe.   Events in these cities were attended by both local citizens and Americans living or visiting in the various foreign countries.  In Canada, over a dozen cities, including Toronto and Montreal, held rallies. There were rallies in London, Copenhagen, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Paris plus other European cities. In Japan, a large march was held in Tokyo, while in Australia, events were held in Sydney and Brisbane  There were two in Africa, one each in Ghana and Mozambique as well as some in various Asian and South American locales.

On average, more than 90 people are killed by guns in the US every day.

 

Photo by Jeff Weber

Photo by Jeff Weber

 

Photo by Jeff Weber

 

Photo by Jeff Weber

“March for Our Lives” participants at Wilmer Park — from left, standing, former US Congressional Rep. for the Eastern Shore Wayne Gilchrest, Sherrie Tilghman, Wanda Boyer, Barbie Glenn, (all three of Eastern Shore Psychological Services in Chestertown), Corrine Harvey and Brooke Schultz of the Washington College student newspaper, the Elm; in front, Greg Glenn. Barbi Glenn was the MC for the rally in the park.      Photo by Jane Jewell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

&nbs

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.

 

 

 

Threatre Review: Wacky Neil Simon Classic ‘The Odd Couple’ at TAP

Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” produced by Tred Avon Players (TAP) and currently playing at Oxford Community Center, may be one of the most successful of Simon’s plays – and considering his long and fruitful career, that’s saying a lot.

The basic concept is simple – two friends who are very different and the conflicts that occur when they become roommates.  One is fastidious, the other a carefree slob. But how many Broadway plays of any era have spawned not only a hit movie but three TV sitcoms – plus various other spin-offs including an animated cartoon and a TV sitcom version (by Simon himself!)

Simon’s play, which premiered in 1965, features mismatched roommates Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison – the one an uptight “neat freak,” the other an easy-going slob.

The original production starred Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. The play took home four Tony Awards: Best Actor (Matthau), Best Author (Simon), Best Director (Mike Nichols) and Best Scenic Design (Oliver Smith). Matthau reprised his role in the 1968 film, with Jack Lemmon taking the role of Felix. And in the long-running TV series (1970-75), Matthau was replaced by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall played Felix. For some unknown reason, the TV series changed the spelling of Felix’s name from “Ungar” to “Unger.”  At TAP, they stick to the original.

In this female version, the fastidious roommate was played by Sally Struthers of “All in the Family” fame where she played Gloria, the ditzy daughter of Archie and Edith Bunker and “Meathead’s” wife.  Rita Moreno, who is well-known for her role in “West Side Story” played the messy roommate.  Moreno is one of only twelve performers who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony.  This is definitely a story concept with characters that have drawn major talents over the decades.

The plot revolves around the personality clash between the two roommates – Oscar’s life, like his apartment, is a shambles, with unpaid bills, broken appliances, and a failed marriage, but he takes it all in stride, although he gets a bit misty eyed when his five-year-old son calls him on the phone. Meanwhile, his fellow journalist Felix is a hypochondriac who fusses over every detail of his life.  Everything must be  just so! Felix upbraids himself – and everyone around him – when things are not up to his impossible standards.  Every glass must have a coaster. But he’s a terrific cook!  The situation is ideal for comedy – in fact, it’s been used or adapted many times, including in the current TV hit, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Best friends, Oscar and Felix, have at it!    

The play opens at the Friday night poker game in Oscar’s apartment in New York City, sometime in the early 1960s. Four of the six regulars are at the table. The interplay between the characters and several comic bits – the soggy potato chips and “green” sandwiches Oscar brings the other players, due to a broken refrigerator – make it clear that Oscar is a complete slob and living on the edge of financial disaster.  As the evening goes on, it becomes evident that one of the regular players, Felix, is missing – and then they find out that Felix and his wife are getting separated.  Now they’re really worried.

The weekly poker game

But then Felix shows up, quite late, and everyone feigns indifference as he wanders about the room, clearly at his wits’ end. Oscar offers him a bed for the night, and Felix accepts – and after the other players leave, he offers him a place to stay. The basic premise of the play is now set up – in effect lighting the fuse for an explosion the audience senses is bound to happen. But, of course, it would spoil the fun to give much more away.

Cast and crew of “The Odd Couple”

The Tred Avon Players’ production, directed by Ed Langrell, assembles a reliable cast of regulars from local theater productions. Click on link for a Spy interview with the two lead actors, Bill Gross as Oscar and Bob Chauncey as Felix.

Bill Gross takes the role of Oscar,  Loud and physical, he is convincing as a macho ‘60s sportswriter. He does a good job of portraying the character’s growing annoyance with his fastidious roommate, despite his carefree attitude toward most of the rest of his daily life.

Oscar, Vinnie, and Murray the cop listen at the bathroom door, ready to bust in in case Felix tries to “harm himself.”  

Bob Chauncey projects a nice nervous energy as Felix, capturing the suggestions of femininity as the character cooks, cleans, and performs the other duties of Oscar’s missing wife – and reveals an emotional softness that must have seemed far stranger in 1964 than it does now. He is a snappy dresser and his hair looks perfectly sculpted. Chauncey is hilarious when he loudly attempts to clear his sinuses,

While Felix and Oscar get star billing, the rest of the ensemble plays an important part in the play. The four poker buddies – all recognizable New York character types – are very well cast.

Patrick Fee does a fine job as Murray, the street-wise cop with a heart of gold. His mobile face and physical presence are just right for the character. A solid job by one of the Shore’s more versatile character actors.  Most recently, he played Bottom the Weaver in Shore Shakespeare’s production of “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”

Felix makes sure that each poker player has a napkin and a coaster – and uses them!

Roy, Oscar’s accountant, is played by Paul Briggs who deftly shows his character’s exasperation and concern about Oscar’s irresponsible finances. Briggs holds his nose and drops the stinky garbage out the window.  But he keeps his feelings  in check when Felix appears, becoming reasonable and pragmatic when it is needed, just like an accountant.

The cynical Speed is played by Brian McGunigle, who is now completing  an impressive run of five roles in a row in plays varying from Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” to Tred Avon’s “A Man of No Importance.” His character’s feigned indifference is well conveyed. But of course, Speed really does have compassion for Felix and McGunigle makes these two seemingly opposite emotions believable.

Zach Schlag is cast as mild-mannered Vinnie, whose henpecked home life is a contrast to the broken marriages of the two main characters. The character’s pliability is the source of several entertaining bits, providing great physical comedy as Vinnie slips and falls while frantically racing around the room to help save Felix.  Although he doesn’t have as many lines as some others, his expressions can be hilarious as he reacts to the other characters.

Felix and the two sisters have a good cry. He’s such a sensitive man!

Lisa Roth and Anna Kusinitz-Dietz play the Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily.  The sisters, a divorcee and a widow,  are originally from England and now live in a neighboring apartment.  They have taken quite a shine to the roommates. Their interactions with Felix and Oscar are a fine bit of Neil Simon comedy, well acted by the sisters as they flirt mischievously or cry copiously.  Their giggles and glances are infectious and the audience loved them. On Thursday night when we were there, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as the sisters left the stage.  It was not the end of the scene.

The set, consisting entirely of Oscar’s living room, is worth walking up for a closer look at intermission or after the play closes – details such as an old manual typewriter and a beat-up baseball glove are letter-perfect. The subtle changes in the room as Felix’s “neatnik” influence begins to be seen are nicely done, as well. The costumes are also right on – especially the Pigeon sisters’ early-‘60s colorful dresses with bright, shiny pocketbooks and knee-high boots, Oscar’s #7 Yankees jersey and Speed’s Hawaiian shirts. The soundtrack – designed by Fee – has a nice selection of period-perfect music. A pleasure to see the little touches so well taken care of.

The 50-plus years since the play was written are evident in many details of the plot and dialogue. For example, it’s no longer that unusual for a man to be a good cook – as Felix is. The sums of money mentioned – 34 cents for a pack of cigarettes, for example — are vivid reminders of what inflation has done, while the characters’ concern over the cost of a long-distance phone call is a historical curiosity in today’s era of unlimited cell phone plans.

And hints – quite humorous hints! – that the relationship between Felix and Oscar echoes their failed marriages, probably seemed edgy if not outright taboo in the early ‘60s.  The uptight culture associated with the 1950s lingered into the early ’60s. Hippies hadn’t happened yet and the sexual revolution was still on the horizon. Simon was exploring new territory. He used comedy to explore relationships and situations that would raise few eyebrows today but were uncomfortable for most people at the time. Divorce, separation, alimony, all these were looked upon very differently then than now. Those who lived through those times will find the contrast from today both interesting and amusing; younger audiences may find it an entertaining history lesson. But this is all subtext, the play is a comedy about relationships and surviving breakups, whether it be with spouses or friends. It asks whether people can change and grow. And it ends with hope and a laugh.

There were plenty of laughs in the large audience for Thursday’s performance, which director Langrell described as a “pre-opening” opening. If you’re in the mood for a classic comedy, with  nostalgia for a different time, it’s well worth the trip to Oxford Community Center, 200 Oxford Road. It’s about an hour from Chestertown or 15 minutes from Easton. The play runs just over two hours.  Remember it starts at 7:30 not 8 p.m.!

“The Odd Couple” is playing through August 20. Shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students. Call 410-226-0061 for reservations – which are strongly recommended, judging by the sizable audience Thursday.  This Sunday’s matinee, we are told, is practically sold out already!

Photos in this article are courtesy of Randy Bachand. Thank you, Randy!

Check back – we’ll be posting more photos.

Felix straightens a picture. It was just a tiny bit off-kilter. And it was driving him crazy!

She likes me!

L-R Standing: Speed, (Hawaiian shirt), Murray, Vinnie, Briggs, Oscar,  Seated – Felix

Murray, Speed, and Oscar

Vinnie tries to sweet-talk Felix into some sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why is George Smiling?

Don’t Worry.  We’re Happy! Say Washington College students.

The Princeton Review ranks Washington College among the top twenty schools in the nation with the happiest undergraduates.

According to The Princeton Review, Washington College is among the nation’s very best institutions for undergraduate education, but its distinctive approach to mentoring students has propelled the college to the top of the chart that measures the happiness factor. Washington College is ranked 16th in the nation for Student Happiness, as noted in the 2018 edition of The Best 382 Colleges released Aug. 1.

Only about 15 percent of America’s 2,500 four-year colleges and two colleges outside the U.S. are profiled in the book, which is one of The Princeton Review’s most popular guides. Published annually since 1992, it has detailed profiles of the colleges with rating scores in eight categories. The book also has ranking lists of top 20 schools in 62 categories, including the Happiest Students category. The Princeton Review’s results are valuable since they are based on surveys of actual students attending the colleges.

Happy WC students on the deck of the Literary House during the 2017 Cherry Tree Young Writers’ Conference.

“I’m delighted to see Washington College featured in The Princeton Review as one of the best 382 colleges for 2018,” said college President Kurt Landgraf. “Washington College is all about the students, and I am proud to know that our high ‘Student Happiness’ ranking reflects that student-centric focus. This cornerstone of who we are and what we do results in memorable experiences that have a positive impact on students’ personal and professional lives.”

In its profile on Washington College, The Princeton Review praises the college for its “truly personalized education,” and quotes extensively from Washington College students. Among their comments: “Living at Washington College is as good as a college experience can get.”

What a smile! Intern Hebs Guerra-Recinos expresses his approval!

“We chose Washington College for this book because it offers outstanding academics,” said Robert Franek, Princeton Review’s editor-in-chief and author of The Best 382 Colleges. “Our selections are primarily based on our surveys of administrators at several hundred four-year colleges. We also visit dozens of colleges each year and give considerable weight to opinions of our staff and our 24-member National College Counselor Advisory Board. Most importantly, we look at the valuable feedback we get from each school’s customers—our surveys of students attending them. We also keep a wide representation of colleges in the book by region, size, selectivity, and character.”

The Princeton Review does not rank the colleges from 1 to 382 in any category. Instead, it uses students’ ratings of their schools to compile 62 ranking lists of top 20 colleges in the book in various categories. The lists in this edition are entirely based on The Princeton Review’s survey of 137,000 students (358 per campus on average) attending the colleges. The 80-question survey asks students to rate their schools on several topics and report on their campus experiences at them. Topics range from their assessments of their professors as teachers to opinions about their school’s career services. The Princeton Review explains the basis for each ranking list here.

Other “Happy Schools” include Rice University, College of William and Mary, Colby College, and Vanderbilt.  The University of California at Santa Barbara is also in top twenty happy schools but they’re practically on the beach so, of course, they’re happy.  St. John’s in Annapolis also made the list.

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Mid-Shore Education: A Chat with Washington College’s New President Kurt Landgraf

New Washington College President Kurt Landgraf had been in office not quite two weeks when the Spy staff dropped into his Bunting Hall office for an interview on July 13. In a wide-ranging conversation, Landgraf was frank and ready to ask questions of his own, a good sign that he will be open to give-and-take with other stakeholders in the college community.

As the interview begins, he is answering a question about what attracted him to Washington College. Later, he responds to a question about a recent poll result showing that some 60 percent of Republicans believe that a college education is not good for society. Landgraf disagreed strongly and went on to to express his belief that the liberal arts curriculum helps provide a good foundation for citizenship in a democracy. Click on the picture above to see the video, which runs just over seven minutes.

The new president began with a brief autobiography, not included in the video. He was born in Newark and raised in Rahway, both in New Jersey. He attended Wagner College on an athletic scholarship and played baseball with the Reading Phillies for a while before joining the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam war. After the service, he had a number of jobs, including a short stint at ETS, the Educational Testing Service, before ending up at DuPont, where he spent a major part of his career, overseeing divisions both in the US and abroad.

He worked in the pharmaceutical division and noted that the opioid antagonist drug Narcan was developed during his time there. He spent ten years as head of the European division of DuPont, and was under consideration to become CEO of the entire company. When that position went to someone else, Landgraf was recruited by Educational Testing Services, which at the time was on the verge of liquidation. He turned the company around, stayed there 13 years, and became very interested in education. During that time, he became chairman of the New Jersey Higher Education Commission, which oversees all colleges in the state. Then in 2015, he was contacted about the Washington College presidency.

After the initial phases of the search process, Landgraf was one of the finalists for the WC job — which eventually went to Sheila Bair. When he was on campus for interviews, he said, he asked one young student what was the most important thing he had learned at the school. “Moral courage,” said the student. Landgraf was so impressed that a young person could cite that quality that he decided on the spot that, if he was offered the job, he would take it. That opportunity came this June, when Bair tendered her resignation.

Asked the difference between his former position as a CEO at DuPont and his new one, Landgraf said that a CEO has nearly absolute power in decision-making, whereas a college president is in a position of co-governance with the board. On the other hand, he said, all institutions “are made up of the same kind of mammal;” with human nature the constant.

Washington College has substantial assets that offer high value to prospective students, he said. He cited the waterfront campus, which is currently under development, the Rose O’Neill Literary House, with its strong program of readings and publications; and the Douglass Cater Society, which supports undergraduate students in self-directed research projects all over the world. He plans to continue and, where possible, expand these programs and their impact. Landgraf said the college needs to market these assets to reach its full potential.  These are wonderful programs, offering outstanding opportunities for students and most people

Landgraf is also aware of the college’s relationship with the town of Chestertown. He has already met with Mayor Chris Cerino, he said, and he is planning to attend the town council meeting July 17 to introduce himself. He said he isn’t concerned with past relations between the two entities; “We need to go forward,” he said. He said he plans to work with the Save the Hospital group, to get involved with United Way of Kent County.  It is very important, he said, for the town and the college to support one another.

In explaining the value of a college education in today’s society, Landgraf said that the U.S. depends on three pillars: capitalism, the rule of law and democracy. An educated populace is needed for each of these to carry its weight. A liberal arts education, while it may not appear to prepare students for specific roles in the workforce, is the best preparation for citizenship in general, he said.

It will be interesting to see how Landgraf’s presidency develops. As one college staff member observed, there have been four presidents in five years, with significant turnover in senior staff. The college can obviously benefit from a period of stability, and given Landgraf’s comments on the need to work with the board and his interest in making the college and the town closer than they have been, friends of the college may be encouraged to hope that this is the beginning of a time of stability and regeneration.

Church Hill Theatre: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”

 

Charlie Brown (Matt Folker) consults “Doctor” Lucy (Becca Van Aken)

Church Hill Theatre’s summer musical this year is “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” directed by Sylvia Maloney. “Charlie Brown” is, of course, based on the popular comic strip, “Peanuts,” by Charles M. Shultz, which in its heyday may have been the most widely read newspaper strip of all time. (One of its rivals for that distinction, “Li’l Abner,” was also the inspiration for a Broadway musical.)

The show was created by song writer Clark Gesner in 1966, near the height of the strip’s popularity. Gesner originally wrote a series of songs based on the “Peanuts” strip, but after Shultz gave his permission, he released a concept album with Orson Bean singing the title role. Eventually, “Charlie Brown” was developed into a full-fledged musical that appeared off-Broadway in 1967 and ran for 1,597 performances. It opened on Broadway in 1971, and had a short run, but the off-Broadway performances had already established it as a hit, A 1998 revival added new dialogue and songs, but the CHT production uses the original script.

The cast of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” performs a musical number

“Charlie Brown” has been one of the most popular shows for school and community theater – I know of at least two previous productions in the local area, one at Kent County High School (also directed by Maloney) and one at Centreville High School (directed by Shelagh Grasso). The premise of the comic strip – children performing their normal activities while expressing deeper, more adult thoughts – nicely translates to the stage, with adults cast in the role of the Peanuts characters. This is part of the fun – that traditionally all the roles are played by actors “remembering” what it was like to act and think like an elementary school or pre-school child. The youngest actor here is in junior high, while the oldest ones are over 50.

Like the newspaper strip, the play is largely episodic – there is no long-range plot, and the characters remained essentially unchanged over the course of the comic strip. It is, in effect, a series of brief gags strung together – some developed at a bit more length, and of course there are repeated themes, but if you go to the theater expecting a “story,” you won’t get one. Instead, it depicts typical activities of a child’s day.

That said, almost all the famous bits “Peanuts” readers would expect are here. Snoopy takes on the Red Baron in a World War I dogfight; Schroeder plays Beethoven on his toy piano; Lucy steals Linus’s security blanket; Charlie Brown pines for the little red-haired girl but never gets up the courage to go talk to her; and the gang manages to extend what must be the longest losing streak in baseball history. About the only iconic gag that doesn’t get portrayed onstage is Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick – and that really depended on its repetition over several years, which Charlie Brown falling for the same trick again and again.

Despite having been originally conceived as a song cycle, “Charlie Brown” does not have a particularly memorable musical score. The lyrics to the songs are undeniably witty – given the source, how could they be anything else? — and the CHT cast performs them with plenty of spirit. The ensemble numbers, including “Beethoven Day,” “The Book Report,” “The Baseball Game” and “The Glee Club Rehearsal” are probably the strongest. In the performance I saw, there were a few spots where the lyrics of solo songs got covered up by the orchestra – that’s too bad, because they really are the whole point of the songs, which are basically sung dialogue.

Schroder (David Ryan) plays Beethoven for Lucy (Becca Van Aken)

Matt Folker takes the role of Charlie Brown, and he does a great job with the character, making very effective use of facial expressions and body language. It’s a tribute to his acting that, in spite of being the tallest person on stage, he clearly projects Charlie’s vulnerability and insecurity. Another strong performance by one of Church Hill’s most reliable leading men.

Becca Van Aken plays Charlie’s nemesis, Lucy. She is superb in conveying the character’s bossy and crabby nature – an almost perfect bit of casting. And then, after the other kids responses to a survey convince her they think she really is crabby, Van Aken nicely conveys her crushed ego and sense of remorse – a surprising switch that many actors would have trouble portraying.

The role of Linus, Lucy’s younger brother, is taken by Elliott Morotti, a freshman in Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn. Despite his youth, he is already a veteran of musical theater, with appearances in several CHT performances and the Chesapeake Children’s Theater. His does a good job capturing the character’s combination of immaturity and philosophical depth.

David Ryan, who is pastor of First and Christ Methodist Churches in Chestertown, is making his CHT debut as Schroder after several roles at the Garfield. He portrays the character enthusiastically, really getting into playing Beethoven on the toy piano.

Sally, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, is played by Maya McGrory, a CHT veteran despite her young age. She gives a charming performance as the young girl who’s still struggling with challenges from jumping rope to school assignments.

Julie Lawrence takes the role of Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s super-talented beagle, and she turns in one of the best performances in the show. It’s a great comic role, with lots of physical schtick and mugging, and Lawrence takes it all easily in stride. As a bonus, she  has one of the best singing voices in the cast. I especially enjoyed her dance routine, Snoopy’s version of the old soft shoe, complete with top hat and a bone for a cane.

Snoopy (Julie Lawrence) does the old soft shoe

Another half dozen characters make up an ensemble, though they each get a few scenes where they can establish themselves. In the CHT production, Morgan Armstrong plays Frieda, Jarrett Plante plays Pig Pen, Samantha Smith is Peppermint Patty, Amy Gillilland is Violet, Faith McCarthy is Marcie and Katie Sardo is Woodstock, Snoopy’s birdie friend. They did a good job of portraying the moods and activities of young school children — skipping, agonizing over homework, licking lollipops, and playing games.

The orchestra for this performance includes Ellen Barry Grunden as pianist and conductor; Tom Anthony on bass; Ron Demby on clarinet and flute; Frank Gerber on percussion; and Jane Godfrey on violin. There were a few tuning problems early at the performance I saw, but the group came together and delivered a good performance overall.

Michael Whitehill and Brian Draper designed and built the set for the show, and it captures the spirit of childhood. Oversize items – a bench, Snoopy’s doghouse, building blocks – emphasize the fact that the characters are all supposed to be small children. So when Folker has to pull himself up on the bench, it makes it easier to forget that he’s six-foot-something instead of a typical first-grader.

The audience had a good time at the production I saw – Saturday night of opening week. A lot of them were clearly long-time “Peanuts” fans, and they empathized with poor Charlie and laughed at the antics of Snoopy and Woodstock. This is really a show that delivers a lot of laughs and sends the audience home with a warm feeling – just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to the evening news. It’s a good show for children, too.

“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” continues through June 25, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. For reservations or more information, call the theater office at 410-556-9003 or visit the theater website.

Photos by Steve Atkinson

Maryland 3.0: WC “Dream Team” Creates Apps in NASA Competition

A group of Washington College students and faculty sat down at the beginning of May to work on “You Are My Sunshine.”

No, they weren’t rehearsing old folk songs. Instead, they were working on a NASA space challenge – an international effort to find ways to educate the public about solar power and its possible benefits both for ordinary people and for a possible exploring party on Mars.

Washington College Associate Professor Shaun Ramsey of the “Dream Team” writes data on the wall of the Hot Desks center as other team mebers watch. From left, Joseph Erlandson,, Luis Machado, Katie Walker and Ian Egland.

Taking part in the project were Ian Egland, a 2016 WC graduate in Computer Science; Joseph Erlandson, a senior Computer Science major; Katie Walker, a Senior majoring in Environmental Studies; Luis Machado, a 2013 graduate now working as a project manager at the college’s Geographic Information Systems laboratory; and Associate Professor Shaun Ramsey, of the Computer Science and Mathematics departments at Washington College.

The group began work at the “Hot Desks” co-working center  at 903 Washington Ave. Michael Thielke of the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center and Jamie Williams, Kent County Economic Development Coordinator, arranged for them to use the facility before the official opening

The “Dream Team,” as they named themselves, went to work  at 8 a.m. Saturday, April 29, for a 48-hour “hackathon.” Williams and Thielke were on hand to assemble furniture for the hot desk center and to provide breakfast and other meals during the project. The team set up computers in the large main room, using the facility’s high-speed wifi connection. They even took advantage of the dry-erase walls to jot down computations, web links,  and other information for handy reference.

Ramsey said the project was related to one that NASA is conducting in Hawaii right now, simulating conditions on Mars. “In space, power usage is variable, and mission critical, and essential to life,” so understanding power consumption is essential, he said. “The app that we’re developing is for everyday people to better understand their power consumption,” he said. Since solar power is freely available in space, the project focuses on that form of energy.

The Dream Team compiled a list of several typical home appliances – refrigerator, microwave, TV, air conditioner, etc. – and listed their typical power usage. In each case, the power draw listed is an average. Older, less efficient appliances will use more than new ones designed to minimize power consumption.

They also looked at the amount of sunlight available in Kent County over different seasons, so as to get a practical estimate of what kinds of equipment could be run on solar alone.

Ramsey said the group was one of 74 different teams from all over the world that worked on their particular problem. Presumably they’d all come up with different solutions, though the teams were allowed to share ideas, and NASA might well choose to combine results from several different teams once the project was completed.

Overall, the competition had five different categories, each of which included several different projects. Ramsey said it would be several weeks before NASA announces the results.

Ramsey updated the status of the project in an email, June 1. He wrote, “In the end, we created two applications that are useful, intuitive and that showcase solar power.” He said he had three goals for the competition: “To contribute to the overall community. To make an application of which I’d be happy to claim ownership. And the last was to have something that could inspire and grow. Something that could spawn other ideas and be developed into something larger if someone were inspired or interested. I definitely feel we accomplished all three of those.”

As of the date of writing, he said, “The awards have not yet been announced. We’re not in the finalists for people’s choice, but that’s to expected with such a smaller network compared to, say, a big school in a big city. It is possible we “win” one of the other awards, but there have been no posted results yet. (…) I do feel like we will be in the running,” he said. He said he would let the Spy know when results were announced.

Ramsey said the Dream Team had posted a brief video telling about their work. They also posted an update with more details. He also provided a like to an overview of the NASA challenge.

Click here for information on the “Hot Desks” facility.

An Enchanted Midsummer Evening with Shore Shakespeare

With its production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shore Shakespeare brings one of the bard’s most fanciful comedies to the stage.

Nominally set in and around Athens during the golden age of Greek culture, the play quickly expands its classical setting to bring in a group of English tradespeople – and then shifts gears yet again to the magical world of elves and fairies. And just to make sure nobody leaves the theater without something to remember, the play includes a love story, a series of magical enchantments, songs, dances, and a play within the play. Shakespeare was clearly having fun when he concocted this one – and the Shore Shakespeare production makes sure that comes across to the audience.

This is Christian Rogers’ debut as a director, and he has done a fine job of bringing the play to life. One of the founders of Shore Shakespeare, Rogers has played major roles in a number of the company’s productions, including MacDuff in last year’s “MacBeth,” Rogers said after the Sunday performance at Adkins Arboretum that he wished he could be on stage instead of watching from the sound booth. But he shows real talent as a director, and while it would be a pity to lose him completely as an actor, the impact of this production makes one hope that he will take the opportunity to direct again not too far down the road.

There are essentially three plot lines in the play. The first involves a love story in the Athenian aristocracy. Lysander and Hermia love one another and wish to marry; but Demetrius also loves Hermia, and wishes to marry her – and her father favors Demetrius’ case. Meanwhile, Helena, who loves Demetrius, is out in the cold. And by Athenian law, Hermia must obey her father or forever renounce marriage – or be put to death. Lysander and Hermia take matters in their own hands and flee for a remote village, where they plan to marry – and hope the law will not reach them.

Meanwhile, in that same village, a group of tradesmen is planning to put on a play in hopes of winning a prize. The theme is the love story “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and the incongruity of the casting and the amateur actors’ attempts to adjust the plot so as not to frighten ladies in the audience make up much of the fun of this subplot.

The third plot brings in Oberon, king of the faeries, who is arguing with his queen Titania. To get his wishes, Oberon sends his servant Puck to find a magical flower that will make his queen fall in love with the first thing she sees upon awakening, hoping to use the spell to get her to accede to his wishes.

Of course all three groups end up in the same section of the forest, where the mingling of mortals with magic generates much confusion and many laughs. But we don’t need to summarize the whole plot – everybody read the play in high school, right?

Rogers has assembled his cast from among the regulars at Shore Shakespeare, and there’s not a weak performance among them. At the center of the play are the four lovers.

Lovers face off in the enchanted forest in Shore Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Troy Strootman plays Lysander, and Robbie Spray is Demetrius; Heather Oland takes the role of Helena and Christine Kinlock that of Hermia. All four have numerous credits in local theater, though Oland and Strootman are making their first appearances with Shore Shakespeare. All carry their parts well, running the gamut of emotions from besotted love to jealous fury. Bravo to each! The lovers’ fight scene near the end is especially well-played and well=choreographed, with Helena jumping on Lysander’s back and the two men circling each other angrily.

The Athenian nobles and the faery royalty are played by two actors: Brian McGonigle takes the roles of Oberon and of Theseus, Duke of Athens, while Colleen Minahan plays Titania and Hippolyta, Theseus’s bride. Since the characters are never onstage at the same time, this works – and it gives an interesting parallelism to the two courts. And, since Oberon and Titania have far more active parts in the play, it gives them something interesting to do while making sure there are good actors in the secondary roles. Greg Minahan also takes two parts, as Hermia’s father Egeus and as Peter Quince, leader of the troupe of  tradesmen/actors. He distinguishes the two characters nicely – in fact, he’s so good that some audience members might not realize the same actor is playing both.

One of the key roles in the play is Puck, the mischievous faery who does Oberon’s bidding. Avra Sullivan, one of the founders of Shore Shakespeare, is a delight in the role – darting around the stage, mugging, pantomiming magical spells, and on the whole giving a memorable performance. Hard to believe this is the same actor who played Lady MacBeth so effectively last summer! Sullivan trained as a Shakespearean actor, and it has shown clearly with every role she has played with the company.

Bottom (Patrick Fee) and Puck (Avra Sullivan)

The other prime comic role in the play is Bottom the weaver, played broadly by Patrick Fee, another fixture in the Shore theatrical community. Bottom is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic comic characters, the country bumpkin who finds himself in exalted company and proceeds to muddle through. Fee does the character proud – one of his best performances.

The other rustic characters are played equally broadly, with good comic effect. They include Sarah Gorman, Josh Hansen, and Jane and John Tereby. Hansen, a ninth-grader at Wye River Upper School, has already accumulated several theater credits, including two roles in last year’s Shore Shakespeare “MacBeth.” He is appropriately amusing as Flute the bellows-mender, cast as Thisbe, the female lead in the artisans’ play, reciting his lines in a high, squeaky “female” voice. John Tereby gets great fun out of being cast as a wall that separates the lovers; and Gorman, wearing an orange mop, does a nice comic turn as the roaring lion in the tradesmen’s play – a wonderful send-up of amateur theater that rings as true today as it must have in Shakespeare’s time.

The villagers rehearse their play , checking to see if the moon will be full on the night of the performance.  It will.  From left, Greg Minahan, Jane Tereby, Josh Hansen and John Tereby

Lindsey Hammer, making her Shore Shakespeare debut, plays a faery who assists Puck in some of his magical exploits. Her dancing and graceful leaps add greatly to the choreography.

With the performances all taking place outdoors, the sets are minimal. There is effective use of colorful movable trees in some of the forest scenes, especially when the lovers are running through the wood at night, unable to find one another because of Puck’s enchantments. A backdrop with columns gives the general impression of Athens, and a few strategically placed stumps give the actors a chance to rise above the scene for a moment. That’s about it – but it’s effective, and likely true to the way the play would have been staged in many productions in Shakespeare’s era.

The costumes are visually attractive and evoke both the era and the distinct groups of characters. It’s amusing to see the rustics dressed in what could be working-class uniforms – with items such as straw hats, suspenders, vests –  from almost any historical era from the 1600s to today.  It nicely distinguishes them from both the noble Athenians and the flamboyant Faery court, while making a sly nod to the fact that the characters might as well be English country folk of Shakespeare’s time. Kudos to Barbi Bedell and Marcia Gilliam for their costume work.

One of my few quibbles with the production was the decision to represent Puck’s transformation of Bottom’s head into that of a donkey by simply adding donkey’s ears to his straw hat. Granted, a more traditional papier-mache donkey’s head could cause problems for the actor in seeing and moving, as well as being uncomfortable if the temperature climbs too high – as it can in June. But with nothing more than the ears on his hat, the other actors’ horrified reaction to Bottom’s transformation seems less believable. Something along the lines of a “Groucho” nose or a donkey’s tail would add humor and help the audience see the magic come alive.

A nice touch is the background music, which mingles Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the play with more modern pieces, including selections by Gounod, Stravinsky, Ravel and Prokofiev – plus some original music by Greg Minahan. The music for the rustics’ final exuberant dance, choreographed by Minahan, is especially appropriate – it’s a nice bit of fun I won’t give away here.

For that matter, the whole production is fun. The actors are clearly enjoying themselves, and it’s contagious. Be sure to see it when it comes to your part of the Shore — and bring the whole family. You couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a summer evening.

Shore Shakespeare will be presenting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” this coming Friday and Saturday, June 9 and 10, at Oxford Community Center, and Sunday, June 11 at Idlewild Park in Easton. The next weekend, the production moves to Long Wharf Park in Cambridge for one performance, Friday, June 16. Saturday and Sunday, June 17 and 18, Shore Shakespeare will be on Cray House Lawn in Stevensville. The summer run closes with two performances in Chestertown’s Wilmer Park, Friday and Sunday, June 23 and 25.
Admission to all performances is free; audience members should bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit on. Performances are at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. For more information, visit shoreshakespeare.com.

Photos by Jane Jewell