Tonight — June 24 — Peter Heck Joins Joe Holt for Mainstay Monday


Peter Heck — guitar

Join us for another Mainstay Monday! These eclectic evenings happen every Monday night and are hosted by our own Joe Holt at the piano, partnering with a special guest. Each week is a unique, one of a kind show. Seating is casual and tables are available (bring your own dinner, if you like), along with a cash bar. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with the show starting at 7:00. This 4th year of Mainstay Mondays is funded in part by Delmarva Power, an Exelon Company.

Our featured guest tonight, June 24, is Peter Heck. Peter is often seen on stage at the Garfield Center open mic, among, other area performance spaces. He was, for many years, a member of Col. Leonard’s Irregulars, featuring our own Owen McCoy as lead vocalist. The band performed a wide range of styles including blues, folk, bluegrass, Irish music, and standards. Pete will revisit this varied repertoire, along with some of his own favorites, in a duo performance with Joe, dedicated to the memory of Owen McCoy.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The music fun starts at 7:00 pm. Admission $12 at the door.


Reggie Harris at Sumner Hall Concert Series, June 1


Reggie Harris

Songster/storyteller Reggie Harris provides the conclusion to Sumner Hall’s exciting concert series, “African American Legacy & Heritage in Jazz, Blues & Gospel,” this coming Saturday, June 1, at 7 p.m. If you saw Harris in his duo appearance with Guy Davis at Sumner Hall about four years ago, you already know how special this performer is. 

Series producer Tom McHugh, who featured Harris more than once at the Mainstay in Rock Hall, said in an interview last fall, before the start of the series, that Harris was the first performer he thought of when choosing artists for Sumner Hall. “Reggie has this reputation of being able to pull all these currents together, McHugh said. ” He added that whenever he brought Harris in for a concert, “I just let him roll,” knowing the result would be right for the situation and the audience.

McHugh said that Harris was perfect for the closing act of the series because “he will leave the audience with hope.” The two met at Pete Seeger’s Clearwater festival, up and down the Hudson River, where McHugh observed Harris’s ability to “focus people on the positive.”

Harris is a gifted guitarist, songwriter, and performer of African American roots music – and a master at getting the audience to add their singing voices to the mix. Frequently appearing in a duo with his wife Kim, Harris has performed throughout the U.S., Canada, and around the world. You can hear his music on several CDs, available online or at the concert. You can hear him with Kim on several albums, including two volumes of Songs of the Underground Railroad. His most recent is Ready to Go, with tunes ranging from traditional spirituals and folk songs to Harris originals to Bob Dylan’s anthem of the protest movement, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

But that’s not all. Following the footsteps of his mentor Seeger, Harris is a storyteller with deep awareness of the place of the music in the society from which it has arisen. His stories cover a range from the days of the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movement to personal anecdotes that connect past and present in a meaningful context. For more about Reggie Harris’s multi-faceted career, visit his website.

Anyone who loves American roots music – especially anyone who likes to sing along! – should be in Sumner Hall, 206 S. Queen St., for the concert Saturday. Tickets are $20. Reservations can be made on the Sumner Hall website.

Sumner Hall Concert to Recreate Sound of Lester Young Trio


Saxophonist Jason Blythe of the University of Delaware jazz ensemble

The Sumner Hall concert series, African American Legacy and Heritage, continues April 13 with a trio led by tenor saxophonist Jason Blythe. A University of Delaware student, Blythe caught the attention of Tom McHugh, the concert series’ organizer, in a performance at the Mainstay. For the Sumner Hall series, McHugh invited Blythe to recreate the sound of the great Lester Young’s 1946 recordings with a trio including Nat “King” Cole and Buddy Rich.

Blythe was born and raised in Camden, Delaware. In an email April 4, he said that his mother and sister were flutists, and a late cousin played the saxophone in the band in middle school. When his aunt and uncle gave him a Yamaha alto saxophone to learn for school, he said, “I didn’t really think much of it, you know? I didn’t think that that instrument could turn into a future for me. Eventually, I started playing in the jazz band at my middle school. My first real influence was the great Michael Brecker, who absolutely blew my mind every time I heard a recording of him—and still does!” Blythe started playing tenor saxophone in his sophomore year of high school and is now the leader of the sax section of the UD jazz ensemble.

At the university, Blythe is studying with Todd Groves, whom he describes as “extremely experienced, and just scary good at any woodwind instrument you hand him.” As for the music of Lester Young, he said, “I had not really listened to much Lester Young before I heard about this opportunity from Tom McHugh a few months ago,” though he had listened to musicians such as Stan Getz and Greg Fishman whose playing is rooted in Young’s style. He said that listening to the trio album with Cole and Rich “has been a treat for me—I have a much greater appreciation for his playing now. I’m excited to share the music of Lester Young with you!”

The Jason Blythe trio — drummer Isaiah Keith, Blythe, and pianist Tom Palmer

Of his bandmates for the concert, Blythe said, “I’ve known (drummer) Isaiah Keith since I started playing at UD. I’m very glad to know Isaiah, both as a person and as a player. He is without a doubt the most insane drummer I’ve had the pleasure of playing with, and while I find myself trying to keep up with his intellect in an improvised setting, I also know that he’s reliable, keeps the groove, and swings in every context.”

Multi-instrumentalist Tom Palmer, the pianist for the date, is the leader of the UD jazz ensemble and an Assistant Professor of Music. Blythe said, “Every time I hear him play drums, I can’t help but bounce my leg. He knows just what to do and when to do it. He plays piano with just as much taste and appropriateness as his work on drums. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to pay homage to the Lester Young Trio with him.” 

Billie Holiday and Lester Young – “Lady Day” and “Pres”

Lester Young (1909-1959) was one of the true giants of jazz, a pioneer whose work inspired the creators of modern jazz in the 1940s and after. A member of the original Count Basie band in the 1930s, he developed a light-footed, supple approach to the tenor saxophone in contrast to the then-dominant full-bodied style of Coleman Hawkins. In the process, he founded a school that continues to this day – notable “disciples” include saxophonists Stan Getz, Zoot Simms, Dexter Gordon, and Gerry Mulligan, but his influence extends to the entire “cool jazz” movement of the 1950s and beyond. While Young was a consummate big band soloist, much of his best work was done with small groups – notably the pickup combos, usually led by Teddy Wilson, that backed Billie Holiday’s early recordings. Young and Holiday remained close for the rest of their too-short lives; he gave her the nickname, “Lady Day,” and she returned the favor by dubbing him “Pres” – short for “President” (of saxophone players).

Pres’s personal life was marked by tragedy. Drafted into the army in 1944, he was not allowed to play his instrument but instead was assigned to regular basic training. His independent attitude made him a target for racist sergeants. He was charged with marijuana possession and court-martialed, spending a traumatic year in detention before a dishonorable discharge. For much of his post-war career, he scuffled to find gigs, while other players imitating his style were far more successful. A sense of his last years can be gathered from the movie “Round Midnight,” in which Dexter Gordon plays an expatriate jazz musician modeled in part on Young.

Despite it all, Pres’s music remained at the highest level. He played on many memorable recordings, notably in the mid-40s with the trio including Cole and Rich to which Blythe’s concert will pay tribute. He was a regular with Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts, trading solos with such giants as Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, and Oscar Peterson, and he played several reunion concerts with Basie, including the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957. That same year, he made a last appearance with Lady Day on a TV show, “The Sound of Jazz,” playing a touching solo on “Fine and Mellow.” (Check it out on YouTube — and watch Holiday’s reaction as Pres plays.) But almost anything he recorded will reward listening – his unique sense of melody and his consummate swing were unfailing.

Jason Blythe’s recreation of Young’s famous trio offers a fascinating look at the continuing influence of one of the greatest musicians in jazz history on a younger generation that is setting out on its own jazz journey. You can come along for the ride at the Sumner Hall concert, 7 p.m. Saturday, April 13; tickets are $20. Reservations can be made on the Sumner Hall website. No-one who enjoys classic jazz should miss this one!

Plenty of Laughs in CHT’s A Flea in Her Ear — Spy Review by Peter Heck


The elegant set and costumes help make “A Flea in Her Ear” come alive at Church Hill Theatre. – Photo by Jane Jewell

Paris in the years just before World War I was a magical city. In later years, that fortunate time was dubbed “la belle epoque” – the beautiful era. It was a time of great art and music – Toulouse Lautrec, Matisse, the young Picasso, Debussy, Satie, the young Stravinsky, to name a few. It was the heyday of the can-can and the cabaret culture of the Moulin Rouge. And it was a time of great peace and prosperity, compared to what came too soon after. It was also an era when the middle classes began to realize a degree of unprecedented affluence. These nouveaux riches – the newly rich, who shared few of the values of the aristocratic classes – were the natural targets of satirists and comic writers, especially the popular Parisian playwright Georges Feydeau.

Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (La Puce a l’oreille, in French) was written in 1907, and it is a hilarious sendup of the nouveaux riches and the many who flocked to Paris from other countries to partake of the heady atmosphere of the time. It makes the most of the contrast between the opulent lives of the rich bourgeoisie and the lowlife culture that provided the spice of life for the masses.

Bradley Chaires in “A Flea in Her Ear” at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

The plot revolves around insurance executive Victor Chandebise and his wife Raymonde, who live a life of respectable prosperity until Raymonde finds evidence that her husband is having an affair. Unsure how to respond, she confides in her old friend Lucienne, who suggests a ruse to ensnare the cheating husband. They send him a letter purporting to be from a female admirer who suggests a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss Hotel, the belle epoque equivalent of a hot-sheets motel. What could possibly go wrong with such an ingenious plan? That’s what the play is about!

Feydeau sprinkles in the time-honored devices of farce with a free hand, including mistaken and false identities, conniving servants, marital infidelity, threats of violence, and that favorite target of French satirists, silly foreigners. It’s very much a play of its era, mocking pretensions of all sorts, but also making fun of those who fall short of “proper” behavior or who have some “comic” disability, such as one character with a speech defect.

Church Hill Theatre’s production, directed by Toph Wallace, is based on a 2006 adaptation by David Ives. Wallace said after the show Saturday night that he was attracted to the play because of his admiration for Ives, who in addition to a considerable body of original work has done a number of adaptations of classic French comedies, as well as a version of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?, which played at CHT a few years ago.

“I’m a gonna  kill you!” Bradley Chaires as Victor Chandebise and Howard Mesick as the Spaniard Don Carlos in “A Flea in Her Ear” at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

This production brings together some of the area’s best comic talent, in roles that give them ample opportunity to crack up the audience. Brad Chaires, who has been one of the mainstays at the Garfield Center in recent seasons, plays Victor, and his deadpan approach to the strait-laced insurance man is right on target. In many ways a true innocent, Victor ironically gets into more trouble than the shadier characters around him — especially after he winds up at the Frisky Puss Hotel. In his first speaking role at Church Hill, Chaires gets a real showcase for his talents.

Hester Sachse, CHT’s executive manager, takes the stage in the role of Raymonde, and she is in her element as the suspicious wife. She does a good job conveying her character’s real concern for the marriage while moving effectively into the comic consequences of her plot to uncover the truth.  Is Victor faithful or isn’t he?  She will do anything, go anywhere to find out.  Even to the notorious Frisky Puss Hotel!

Dan Guidice and Hester Sachse in “A Flea in Her Ear” at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Robbie Spray, recently seen in the Garfield Center’s Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol, gets the part of Camille, Victor’s nephew, who suffers from a speech defect. The role could easily turn awkward, but Spray keeps its comic elements in focus, with a nice physical performance adding to the fun.

Dan Guidice, also making his Church Hill debut, is cast as Romain Tournel, Victor’s business partner – who, as it turns out, has a desperate crush on Raymonde. To his chagrin, she is willing to entertain his attentions only in a platonic way. But a mixed message gives him hopes… Guidice makes it all convincing – and better still, amusing.

Camille (Robbie Spray) and Dr. Finache (Bryan Zajchowski) in “A Flea in Her Ear” at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Genevieve Croker

Raymonde’s best friend Lucienne Hominedies de Histangua is played by Natalie Lane. The wife of a hot-tempered Spaniard, she acts as confidante and instigator of the plot at the heart of the play – only to end up in trouble herself. Lane also effectively handles exchanges – in rapid Spanish – with her jealous husband.  It’s hard to believe that during the day, Natalie is a children’s librarian at the Kent County Library!

The versatile Howard Mesick plays the role of Don Carlos, Lucienne’s husband with plenty of fire and comic menace. While the character is a stereotype bordering on the outrageous, Mesick makes it good fun as he stomps across the stage, brandishing a pistol and speaking a mile a minute, both in broken English and fluent Spanish.

Herb Ziegler gets a nice part as the owner of the Frisky Puss Hotel, an ex-military man who is used to being obeyed, especially by his slow-witted bellboy, Poche. It’s fun to watch his overreaction as things begin to go haywire in the second act. A nice turn by a veteran of the local theater.

The valet Etienne (Charles Moore) with the chambermaid Eugenie (Shannon Whitaker) in “A Flea in Her Ear” at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

A large cast of minor characters includes Charles Michael Moore, Minnie Maloney, Shannon Whitaker, and Mary Zober, playing Victor’s servants and the staff of the Frisky Puss. Steve Atkinson has an amusing part as Baptiste, who spends almost his entire time in bed, serving as a decoy in case the police or suspicious spouses come calling. Troy Strootman plays a stereotypical — and combative — Englishman staying at the hotel. And Bryan Jon Zajchowski plays Dr. Finache, the medical examiner at the insurance company. The doctor, it turns out, visits the best fashionable parlors during the day and then visits the Frisky Puss in the evening.  All get their comic bits, and all are thoroughly entertaining.

Almost as impressive as any of the performances is the wonderful set – which changes from the Chandebise’s elegant living room to the tawdry Frisky Puss Hotel and back again in the intermissions. A good part of the audience sat and watched as the crew made the transformation – a magical piece of stagecraft in and of itself. Kudos to Shelagh Grasso for the design and Carmen Grasso, Tom Rhodes and Jim Johnson for building it. And to stage manager Michelle Christopher and her crew for their fascinating and precisely choreographed set changes on wheels. The costumes, by Juanita Wieczoreck, capture the flavor of the elegant era flawlessly.

Feydeau is in many ways a reflection of the attitudes of his time, with social and cultural assumptions that seem shallow from the distance of a century, but he has an eagle eye for the little hypocrisies and character flaws that are the essence of satiric comedy. The play, as much as those of say, Gilbert and Sullivan, is by default a period piece – but it is a delicious period piece, not to be missed. And the cast – under Wallace’s first-class direction – brings both physical and verbal energy to the script. If you’re in the mood for laughter – and who couldn’t use a good laugh, these days? – be sure to go see it.

Bradley Chaires, Steve Atkinson, Natalie Lane, Howard Mesick, and Robbie Spray in “A Flea in Her Ear” at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Young children will probably enjoy the show because of all the running around and general silliness.  But they will probably not understand much of the more adult implications.  There is no bad or explicit language– remember it was 1907!  And Ives has faithfully preserved that aspect of the period.  But the double entendres, sexy innuendoes, and witty euphemisms provide much of the humor as the characters attempt to talk about adult matters without using any anatomical or vulgar terms.  It’s quite a trick but with hilarious facial expressions and gestures, they succeed beautifully.

A Flea in Her Ear will be playing through the weekend of April 14. Shows are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. For reservations, call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit the theater website at

Troy Strootman as an English traveler with the proprietors of the Frisky Puss Hotel, Herb Zeigler and Mary Zober, in “A Flea in Her Ear” at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell


Guy Davis Brings Blues and Songster Ramblings to Sumner Hall, March 1


Guy Davis — photo by Joseph A. Rosen

Anyone who loves traditional blues should be looking forward to March 1, when Guy Davis, “The Ambassador of the Blues,” plays at Sumner Hall. Davis’s show, “On the Road with Blues and Songster Ramblings,” is part of Sumner Hall’s concert series, “African American Legacy & Heritage in Jazz, Blues & Gospel.” The series, featuring local and nationally-known performers, is produced by Tom McHugh, well known for his work at the Mainstay in Rock Hall.

African American Legacy & Heritage – Jazz, Blues, and Gospel — Sumner Hall concert series

Davis and McHugh go back a long way. They first met when McHugh was teaching a course in African American music at Vassar College and asked Davis to demonstrate slide guitar to his class. Since McHugh’s move to Kent County, Davis has performed here a number of times, including the first Riverside Blues Festival, several appearances at the Mainstay, and a memorable duo concert with guitarist Reggie Harris at Sumner Hall.

Davis, the son of the late actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, is self-taught on guitar. He picked up tips for listening to and watching other musicians, including a nine-fingered guitarist who taught him finger-picking during a long train ride. He also plays 5-string banjo, which he learned at a music summer camp, and harmonica. Not surprisingly, he has also followed his parents into acting, including a role as legendary Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson in an off-Broadway production.

But as the concert title suggests, Davis’s reach extends beyond the blues, including ragtime tunes, New Orleans jazz sounds, fife-and-drum pieces, folk music – and always something to “make you want to dance.” Don’t be surprised if he includes a tune or two from the repertoire of Pete Seeger, one of his mentors and a strong influence. You can hear Davis’s music on over a dozen albums, most recently “Sonny & Terry’s Last Train,” a tribute to the late blues masters Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Davis credits Terry as his main influence on harmonica.

The Sumner Hall performance begins at 7 p.m. Due to limited space, reservations are strongly recommended. Tickets are available on EventBrite, by email to or by calling 443-282-0023. Admission is $20.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a Stunning Production — Review by Peter Heck


“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” cast: on sofa – Brianna Johnson as Honey and Lyle Pinder as Nick, standing Brad Chaires as George, & Jen Friedman as Martha  — Photo by Jane Jewell

Edward Albee’s groundbreaking play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, currently playing at the Garfield Center in Chestertown, brings some of the strongest performances in recent years to the local stage. Directed by Gil Rambach, the play – as Rambach noted before the opening night performance – is challenging, even uncomfortable for audiences. But nobody who enjoys the theater should miss this production. Simply put, it’s electrifying.

Albee’s play had its Broadway debut in 1962, and it won both the Tony Award and the Drama Critics’ Award as best play. It was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize by the award’s drama jury, but the award’s advisory board reportedly overruled the selection because of the play’s use of profanity and its sexual themes, both unusual at the time. No Pulitzer was given for drama that year.

The original cast included Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, Melinda Dillon, and George Grizzard, with Allen Schneider as director. The production at Billy Rose Theatre in New York ran for 664 performances, after which it opened in London. It has been revived numerous times – with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara in 1976, and with Mike Nichols and Elaine May in a 1980 production in New London. A 1994 London production starred David Suchet and Diana Rigg — that’s one I would love to have seen.

George (Brad Chaires) confronts his wife Martha (Jen Friedman) with Nick (Lyle Pinder) in the background in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — Photo by Jane Jewell

However, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is probably best known from the 1966 film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, with George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the younger couple. Directed by Mike Nichols, it was nominated for 13 Academy Awards – every category for which it was eligible – one of only two films ever to do so. It ended up winning five, including Taylor as best actress and Dennis as supporting actress. And, in a sign of the changing times, the script retained much of the provocative language of the stage version. The days of film censorship were over.  This is definitely adult fare – so keep the kiddies at home, except perhaps for very mature teenagers.   But definitely go yourself.  It’s a drama, not a comedy, though there are some ironic chuckles and laugh lines.  Be prepared for an intense evening of drama at its best.

The play explores the complex and embattled relationship of a middle-aged married couple, George and Martha. After a faculty party at the small New England college where George teaches, Martha invites a younger faculty couple, Nick and Honey, to their home. George instantly takes umbrage at her having issued the invitation without consulting him, and the ensuing argument carries on throughout the night and into the next morning, drawing in the younger couple who stay in spite of the raging emotions. In the course of it, much is revealed about the lives and relationships of both couples, though the real explosions take place between George and Martha.

Put that baldly, it sounds as if the play is about nothing much, and in a sense it is. But in another sense, it’s about everything: ambition and failure, love and hate, reality and illusions, innocence and experience – life itself. Albee packs these themes into the interaction of four characters in one tense evening, fueled by way too much to drink and unrestrained libido. A significant portion of the dialogue is delivered at the top of the actors’ voices – it must require incredible vocal stamina for them to keep from burning out after the first act. In a show that runs close to three hours, that’s a lot to ask – but on opening night, the actors delivered.

Director Rambach, who has a long directing career in New Jersey before moving to the Shore, is also a playwright. He said after the performance we saw that he has directed Virginia Woolf once before in the mid-’90s, but his accumulated experience since then has given him a fresh perspective on the play. For this production, he has put together an outstanding cast.

Jen Friedman as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — Photo by Jeff Weber

In the Garfield production of the play, Jen Friedman takes the role of Martha – the Elizabeth Taylor role. Well regarded for her strong comic roles – most recently as Gorgeous Tettlebaum in The Sisters Rosenzsweig at Church Hill – in this play she delivers a powerful, over-the-top performance as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, lashing out at everything and everyone around her yet sometimes her own vulnerability shows and the audience feels sympathy – and perhaps even identification–with her. Friedman’s character covers an incredible range of emotions, and she makes them all believable. Regular theater-goers have had plenty of opportunities to see her versatility, but this role may be her most impressive yet.

Garfield regular Bradley Chaires plays George, and his energy in the role is a match for Friedman’s. He makes good use of his physical bulk to dominate the stage, even looming over and shoving around the 6’1” actor who plays Nick. He also conveys the character’s mean streak even when he’s not the main focus of a scene, as when he sits and reads a book while Martha makes passes at the younger professor. A strong performance by an actor who has become a valuable featured player at the Garfield.

Brianna Johnson as Honey and Lyle Pinder as Nick in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — Photo by Jeff Weber

Brianna Johnson, who has worked both onstage and behind the scenes at the Garfield and Church Hill Theatre, is quietly brilliant as Honey. The mousy young faculty wife is in one sense a secondary character, far less flamboyant that George or Martha or even her husband. But every time I looked at her, her expression and posture delivered an unmistakable message about how the character felt and responded to what was going on around her. Only 21 years old, Johnson shows uncanny stage presence in this role; let’s hope we see a lot more of her on local stages.

Nick is played by Chestertown native Lyle Pinder, making his Garfield debut after garnering numerous theater and TV and film credits in New York. His experience is easy to see, as he gives the character a combination of arrogance and unexpected vulnerability. An excellent job.

The set, representing George and Martha’s living room, is nicely done, with lots of books on view and ‘60s-looking furniture. And the costumes are right for the period, thanks to Connie Fallon, who also did the set decoration.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is playing through Feb. 24, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $20 general admission; $15 for seniors or military personnel; and $10 for students.   Reservations can be made on the Garfield website, or by calling the theater at 410-810-2060.

Brad Chaires

  Jen Friedman

Brianna Johnson







Lyle Pinder

Director and Crew for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” –

Brad Chaires as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — Photo by Jeff Weber

Brad Chaires and Jen Friedman as George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — Photo by Jeff Weber


It’s drinks for everyone in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” – Photo by Jeff Weber


Church Hill Theatre’s “Watch On The Rhine” – a Review by Peter Heck


The cast of “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, currently playing at Church Hill Theatre, is a political drama with a comic edge set in 1940, when World War II was just gathering momentum in Europe but before America became directly involved. Directed by Mary James, it is at the same time an effective historical drama and a prescient look at today’s world.

Hellman, who had already made a mark with the stage and film success of The Little Foxes, wrote Watch on the Rhine in 1940, and it opened on Broadway in April 1941 – just ten months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the USA into the war. The play ran for 378 performances, winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as best play. In 1942, she went to Washington for a special birthday performance for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she met and spoke to about the need to oppose Hitler – a main theme of the play.

L-R Jane Copple as Fanny Farrelly, Will Robinson as Count Teck De Brancovis, Lisa Wojehowski as Joshua Muller, Darlene Greer as Sara Muller, Calla McClusky as Babette Muller, Connor Christopher as Bodo Muller, and Sheila Austrian as Anise  in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

The next year, the play was adapted for Hollywood by Dashiell Hammett, Hellman’s life-long romantic partner. The film version starred Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, who along with George Coulouris reprised their roles in the Broadway production. Jack Warner of Warner Brothers studios paid $150,000 for the rights to the play, reportedly because he felt it would boost patriotic feeling now that the U.S. was in the war. Davis and Lukas also took part in a radio broadcast of the play in 1944.

David and Sara, brother and sister reunited in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Steve Atkinson

The play takes place in an elegant residence in the Washington suburbs, where socialite Fanny Farrelly and her son David, a lawyer, are awaiting the arrival of Fanny’s daughter Sara and her family.  At first, it seems that the play is about classic family struggles, childhood tensions that have evolved into strained relations between parents and adult children, Slowly it becomes clear that there is much more going on. The play touches on several serious themes –how marriages rarely turn out to be what the happy couples expect, what war does to people, how it changes them,  the compromises they make just to get by and stay alive, how even children are involved and must grow up quickly.

Fanny has been semi-estranged from her daughter whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in twenty years, though there have been occasional letters. Fanny is excited about Sara’s return from Europe although it quickly becomes clear that she is also the type of mother who controls everything – planning and controlling everyone’s lives down to the last detail, although in a humorous and gracious way.

Sara’s husband Kurt Muller is an engineer of German birth, who has spent much of his life fighting against the rise of fascism. The Mullers are accompanied by their three children, Joshua, Babette, and Bodo. Also staying at the Farrellys’ home are a Romanian aristocrat, Count Teck de Brancovis, and his wife Marthe, who was a childhood friend of Sara’s. Also present is Anise, the family’s long-time maid.

Fanny (Jane Copple) meets her granddaughter Babette (Calla McCluskey) in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Almost from the moment of the Mullers’ arrival, the Count is curious about Kurt’s origins, his occupation, everything about him. It’s immediately evident he has some agenda for asking all the questions, which Kurt generally evades. Our suspicions of the Count increases as we learn he has been playing high-stakes poker – despite being apparently short of funds himself – with a group of German diplomats in Washington. It becomes clear that Kurt has escaped Europe because the Nazis are looking for him, and that he continues to work against them even in America.

Fanny is oblivious to all this, talking about the gossip in her social circle and treating Sara like a child. As Sara re-bonds with her old friend Marthe, she learns that life with the Count is nothing like what Marte expected when they married. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that the Count not only has fascist sympathies but that he is ready to use whatever he learns from or about Kurt to his own advantage. And that inevitably leads to trouble.  And a surprising climax to the play.

Director Mary James and set designer Temple Worth for “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Mary James, who has extensive directing credits with the St. Martin’s Community Theater and the Colonial Players in Annapolis, makes her CHT directing debut with this production. She has assembled a strong cast – a tricky proposition given how close to the holiday season the performance was scheduled – and the resulting play is well worth their efforts.

Jane Copple, a veteran of many performances at CHT and other regional theaters, takes the role of Fanny Farrelly, the mother. She is in her element in this role, lording it over a household where far more than what her character understands is going on. Copple does a nice job of making the character sympathetic, showing both her “lady of the manor” side and her genuine concern for her daughter and grandchildren who, in her opinion, have been irresponsibly traipsing around an increasingly dangerous Europe.  Copple, who has an excellent singing voice, is more frequently seen in musicals.  It’s nice to see her in a straight dramatic role.

Jane Copple as Fanny Farrelly in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Howard Messick, another regular on the local theater circuit, is cast as David Farrelly, and he does a fine job with the character – a bit of a mama’s boy who shows some real strength when called on to respond to a crisis.  He treats his mother with both deference and a bit of eye-rolling.

Bob McGrory plays Kurt Muller, the anti-fascist refugee. He deploys a convincing accent – possibly as a result of spending time in Germany in his younger days – and gives the character a good balance between the sympathetic family man and the tough freedom fighter.

Will Robinson plays the villain, Count De Brancovis, with an effective blend of menace and aristocratic disdain. Robinson is quite tall and makes good use of his height and physical presence to tower over and physically intimidate other characters, especially his wife and the other men in the house, all while playing the amiable guest. Robinson is frequently cast in comic roles, and it’s good to see him stretching beyond his normal range.

Genevieve Croker does a good job with the role of Marte, the Count’s long-suffering wife.  Marte has come to realize that she is stuck in a dead-end marriage that is not going to get any better.  She has struck up a friendship with David that is slowly moving from long talks and shared confidences to a budding romance.  A nice job.

Darlene Greer plays Sara Muller, the daughter returning home to a mother who doesn’t quite understand the life her grown-up daughter has chosen.  Sara is happy to be back home again, especially to see her brother David who she was always very close to.  But she is also determined not to let her mother take over her life again.  In many ways, Sara’s experience of trying to raise a family in war-torn Europe has made her a much more realistic and mature person than her wealthy socialite mother.  Greer brings just the right amount of practicality, warmth and a surprising resilience to her character.

Sheila Austrian is well cast as Anise, the maid, who seems to be somewhere between a valued family friend and a servant, speaking her mind sometimes and meekly following orders other times.  It’s a hard line to walk and Austrian does it very well.  Anise immediately starts taking care of the grandchildren and is delighted to see Sara again, who she helped to raise from babyhood.

Family reunion- Fanny, David, and Sara in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Lisa Wojehowski, Connor Christopher and Calla McCloskey play the three Muller children, Joshua, Bodo, and Babette. All three do an excellent job and create separate personalities for their characters.  Babette twirls around in her pretty dress but she is also mature for her age.  Bodo is a bit of a scholar and is always dropping pearls of knowledge into the conversation.  Special kudos go to Lisa Wojehowski who convincingly takes on the role of  Joshua, the oldest son, who has had to take on responsibilities beyond his young age.

The play is structured in three acts, with an intermission after the first. It ran just under two hours on opening night. At first, it feels very much like a drawing-room comedy, with Fanny’s social pretensions and dithering about picking up her daughter’s family at the station. But the political plotline, which to my ears had a very contemporary ring despite its origins in the 1940s, soon brings a more serious focus to the proceedings. Hellman’s handling of the theme hits home by her linking of the fight against fascism to the lives of believable flesh-and-blood characters, who at one point assert that surely America would not reject refugees from war and violence.  As it happened, America in the 1930s and ’40s did both, taking in many refugees but also denying many others, turning away entire boatloads of European refugees from World War II.  The play clearly shows how history moves in its eternal cycles, surprising each generation as the same things happen again, just a little bit differently.

The set, designed by Temple Worth from a concept by James, is marvelous – as we have come to expect from Church Hill Theatre. The costumes are also outstanding – especially Copple’s elegant dresses – thanks to Tina Johnson and Debra Ebersole. The performance was also solid; perhaps the only weakness was that a couple of the characters’ voices sometimes failed to carry to the back of the auditorium. Sit up close if you want to follow all the dialogue.

Watch on the Rhine runs through February 3, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission; CHT members get a $5 discount, and student tickets are $10. Call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit the theater website for reservations.

Fanny Farrelly and her son David Farrelly greet son-in-law Kurt Muller whom they have not seen for 20 years. – “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

The Count De Brancovis (Will Robinson) confronts his wife Marte (Genevieve Croker) in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

David Farrelly (Howard Mesick) with Babette (Calla McClusky), Joshua, (Lisa Wojehowski), and Bodo (Connor Christopher) in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Jane Jewell

Anise knows her lady Fanny well – “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Steve Atkinson

Marte and Teck in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Steve Atkinson










Babette, Joshua, David, Bodo, and Kurt in “Watch on the Rhine” by Lillian Hellman at Church Hill Theatre – Photo by Steve Atkinson





Boogie Woogie and a Message: Daryl Davis at Sumner Hall


Daryl Davis

The Sumner Hall concert series, “African American Legacy & Heritage in Jazz, Blues & Gospel,” continues with a performance by pianist Daryl Davis, one of the modern masters of boogie-woogie piano. The concert, “Daryl Davis Offers Boogie Woogie and a Message,” is at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8.

Davis has performed and recorded with a veritable “Who’s Who” of musicians in the blues, rock, and popular fields, including Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and many others. He has been a frequent performer at the Mainstay in Rock Hall, especially at Rock Hall Fallfest. So he was one of the first performers sought by Tom McHugh, who assembled the talent for the Sumner Hall series, which features performers covering historically important styles of blues, gospel and jazz music.

In addition to his musical career, over the years Davis has gained recognition for a project in which he seeks out and enters into dialogue with members of the Ku Klux Klan. The idea came to him in 1983, when a white patron in a bar where he was playing complimented him on his renditions of Jerry Lee Lewis tunes. He told the man, who turned out to be a KKK member, that Lewis’s style was patterned on African-American blues and gospel music, and in the course of the conversation, the man gave him the contact information for several KKK members.

Davis went on to meet a number of Klansmen, including the Grand Dragon of the Maryland Klan, who arrived at the interview with an armed guard. Eventually Davis convinced the man to give up his Klan membership, as a token of which he gave Davis his Klan robes. Over the years, Davis says he has been directly responsible for between 40 and 60 members leaving the Klan, and indirectly responsible for as many as 200.

He told of his experiences in his 1998 book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan. Davis has frequently lectured on his experiences with Klan members, and was the subject of a 2016 film on PBS, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America. Davis has said that his success rests in part on his religious faith and partly on his belief that hatred is the result of ignorance. Getting to know someone well makes it harder to hate them.

As part of the Sumner Hall series, McHugh asked all the performers to answer audience questions about the music or anything else. In Davis’s case, this will undoubtedly include his encounters with the Klan as well as his extensive musical career.

Davis plays at Sumner Hall at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8. Some tickets, at $20 each, are still available. To make a reservation, visit the Sumner Hall website (


Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol a Holiday Delight at Garfield Center


The cast of Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol at the Garfield Center 2018 – Photo by Peter Heck

The holiday season wouldn’t be complete without Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim – one of the classic Christmas stories. This year, the Garfield Center is offering an adaption of the tale for young audiences, “Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol,” and for good measure, the show’s second week coincides with Chestertown’s “Dickens of a Christmas” festival.

The story is set in London in 1834, a decade before the story was first published. Tiny Tim Cratchit, whose father works for the miser Scrooge, is trying to find a way to get his father a day off for Christmas. But Scrooge, who sneers at anything that doesn’t contribute to his bottom line, tells Crachett to be at work at 9 o’clock sharp on Christmas day – there’s money to be made, and that’s an end to it. Desperate, Tim and his young friend Charlotte enlist several street vendors to impersonate ghosts to scare Scrooge into recognizing the spirit of Christmas and giving his employee the holiday off. As the play continues, we watch the plan unfold – and just at the critical moment, a real Christmas miracle takes place.

Jim Landskroener as Scrooge – Photo by Peter Heck

Director Bonnie Hill has brought together a good cross-section of local acting talent, including several younger actors, for this production. Garfield veteran (and board member) Jim Landskroener – last seen as Groucho Marx in “Animal Crackers” – has the prize role of Scrooge, and Dickens would be proud of his portrayal. Whether he is rejecting a request for charitable contributions for the poor — “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” — or cowering before the ghosts called up to reform the miser’s ways, Landskroener is spot-on. 

Tiny Tim and Charlotte devise a plan to make Scrooge give Bob Cratchit a day off for Christmas – Photo by Peter Heck

John Crook plays Tiny Tim, who also acts as the narrator of the play, while Raven Miller takes the role of Charlotte, Tim’s young friend. They are on-stage pretty much the entire time, and they make the most of their stage time, whether they’re in the middle of the action or hiding just outside Scrooge’s view while their plans are going forward. They also serve as intermediaries for younger audience members, giving them an understandable hook to involve them in the main action of converting Scrooge from a holiday-hating miser to a participant in the spirit of the season. Both do excellent jobs.

The three vendors are played by Jane Jewell, David Ryan and Bryan Zajchowski – each of whom takes on several additional roles within the play. Jewell, whose last local appearance was in the role of Aunt Rhoda in Earl Lewin’s “Hitched,” is cast as a puppet vendor, the Ghost of Christmas Past and Tiny Tim’s mother, Mrs. Cratchit. Ryan is a pie-seller, Scrooge’s old employer Fezziwig, and the ghosts of Marley and Christmas Present. And Zajchowski plays a bookseller, Mrs. Fezziwig, andTiny Tim’s father, Bob Cratchit. All handle the multiple roles well, and their costume changes are done smoothly enough that the play doesn’t slow down. Zajchowski is especially funny when he portrays the cheerful Mrs. Fezziwig with a high, squeaky voice and dancing in a red evening dress. Good jobs by three versatile character actors.

Robbie Spray does a good job in several minor roles, including Scrooge’s nephew Fred, a gravedigger, and Mr. Stevens, a gentleman who solicits Scrooge for a charitable donation. He also ghosts the voice of Christmas Future, played onstage by a life-sized flying puppet manipulated by Steve Atkinson.  Atkinson also has multiple responsibilities as stage manager and playing a small role as Mr. Hollyfoot, a gentleman who collaborates with Mr. Stevens in collecting for charity and is appalled by Scrooge’s callousness and complete lack of Christmas spirit or any sympathy for the poor and underprivileged.

The three street vendors: David Ryan as the pie-seller, Bryan Zajchowski as the book-seller, and Jane Jewell as the puppet-seller – Photo by Peter Heck

Alden Swanson plays a young girl and a Christmas turkey.   Caleb Ford takes the part of the young boy who tells Scrooge it’s Christmas morning and runs to get and deliver the turkey.  Swanson and Ford join Kathy Jones, Cornelia Fallon, and Michelle Genovese as Christmas carolers, assisted by the rest of the cast at several points. The songs are traditional Christmas favorites of the era including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The Holly and the Ivy” – it’s nice to hear something besides today’s commercial seasonal fare. Julie Lawrence is musical director.

The costumes are period-appropriate and very eye-catching as well. Kudos to costume chair Juanita Wieczorek and her crew Connie Fallon, Tina Johnson, and Jen Emley. Several of the costumes, including the four gentlemen’s frock coats and most of the carolers’ outfits, were hand-made for this production by Connie Fallon and other costume committee members.  They will also be used in the Dickens Weekend activities. The set gives the feeling of the era while being flexible enough to allow reasonably quick scene changes. Earl Lewin designed and Beverly Smith painted the sets.  Jennifer Kafka Smith made the wonderful Victorian-period puppets.

Scrooge, played by Jim Landskroener, is awakened by the Ghost of Christmas Present (David Ryan) – Photo by Peter Heck

The play as a whole takes just under an hour, so it’s unlikely to strain the patience of young theater-goers, who are pretty much the natural audience for this adaptation of Dickens’ tale. And while this version of Dickens’ novella has been adapted and streamlined for younger viewers, there’s enough left of the original text, particularly in Scrooge’s lines, to serve as an effective introduction to the story for those younger audince members.  Scrooge still says “If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population” and “Bah, humbug”. 

This production is definitely a play for the whole family – it might be a good idea to come the first weekend, before the Dickens festival brings in the large out-of-town audience. 

Scrooge (Jim Landskroener) in his nightgown is thrilled to be told by a boy (Caleb Ford) that it is still Christmas day – Photo by Peter Heck

Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol” runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $20. Tickets for seniors and military personnel are $15, and tickets for students are $10. Get a special $5 off on opening night if you wear your Garfield Center t-shirt! Call the Garfield box office at 410-810-2060 or visit Eventbrite to reserve tickets.

The puppet-seller (Jane Jewell), disguised as the Ghost of Christmas Past, arrives to scare Scrooge (Jim Landskroener). – Photo by Peter Heck

John Crook as Tiny Tim – Photo by Peter Heck

David Ryan as the pie-seller – Photo by Peter Heck

A gravedigger (Robbie Spray) gives Scrooge a glimpse of what lies ahead – Photo by Peter Heck

The Cratchit family dinner: Mrs. Cratchit (Jane Jewell), Emily (Raven Miller), Mr. Cratchit (Bryan Zajchowski), Tiny Tim (John Crook) – Photo by Peter Heck

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