Cotton Patch Redux, Day 2: Whispering Pines is a Diner’s Delight

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The Whispering Pines

After a pleasant day at the Woodward I found myself back on the road and heading to Norman, OK.

The one issue with driving through Kansas is that there is precious little scenery.  Adding to that issue is one must use the Kansas Turnpike which has to be one of the most mind-numbing drives one can take.  I had to take the turnpike on a trip to Texas several years ago and I seem to recall wondering if the turnpike had been sponsored by Amoco and McDonald’s as those were the only places one would see at rest areas along the way.

Well, some changes have been made in the ensuing years as Amoco seems to have been pushed out in favor of Valero and there was a Hardee’s or two to break up the McDonald’s.  Sadly, that was the limit of the scenery for the drive.

A day’s worth of driving brought me to Norman, OK where once again Mapquest had failed me utterly.  From the pictures I had seen for my next inn, I suspected it was outside the city, but the directions planted me right in the middle of downtown Norman.  Luckily, I found the Norman Public Library where Courtney graciously Googled Mapped better directions that took me to my next inn, the Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast.

Whispering Pines, owned and operated by Rany and Thavory Kchao, is rather secluded as it is located a bit out of town in the country.  That seclusion was rather good for my writing sensibilities due to the peace and quiet.  The property consists of the main house which holds several rooms and several luxury cottages located on various parts of the land.

Whispering Pines is unusual as it lacks many of the features of interest that I would expect to find at B & Bs.  I’m rather fond of exploring the houses as I enjoy the various ornate rooms and history.  Whispering Pines has more of the feel of a high class hotel as the lower floor consists of a check-in area and a dining room which serves as the location of Whispering Pines’ gourmet restaurant.

After checking in, I was led to the English Hunt Room which was a very comfortable room.  The centerpiece of the room was a luxurious king bed.  The room also has a small, but elegant bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub, and a private breakfast nook.

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The English Hunt Room

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Breakfast nook

What Whispering Pines lacks in terms of the traditional B & B experience, it more than makes up for in its magnificent perks.  As I stated earlier, the inn’s dining room serves as the eating area for Whispering Pines’ gourmet restaurant.  The reservations only restaurant is actually the primary focus of Whispering Pines as it is open to both guests and non-guests.

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Whispering Pines’ gourmet restaurant

If you find yourself in the area, make a reservation to eat here as the cuisine of French continental chefs, Chinda and Rany Kchao is a glorious experience.  I was seated by the fireplace where I was brought a basket of freshly baked rolls which were served with a homemade butter which had honey and dill mixed into it.  The taste was heavenly.

My meal opened with a Hungarian mushroom soup with Hungarian paprika.  The rich and thick orange broth had a lovely hint of spice and was deliciously creamy.

Between the soup and main course I was served a lemon-lime sorbet which was a dandy little palate cleanser.  For the main course I had an herb-potato encrusted salmon filet served with asparagus, zucchini, and scalloped potatoes.  The chef also included a slightly toasted potato which was carved into the shape of a rosebud.  It was both artful and tasty.

The salmon was cooked perfectly and served with a splendid champagne cream sauce.  The herb-potato added just the right bit of crunch and flavor.  The vegetables were fresh and crispy and the scalloped potatoes were wonderful.

After I finished the superb meal, I returned to my room where I enjoyed a nice long Jacuzzi bath.  I then grabbed a soda from the complimentary treats cabinet on the first floor and sipped Coca-Cola while continuing my latest Nero Wolfe novel until I fell into slumber.

Another perk of the inn is that each room has a breakfast nook and breakfast is served directly to your room.  A menu of choices is available in each room and you write your order down and place it in a box at the end of the first hallway with your preferred breakfast time.

At 9am sharp, my breakfast was delivered.  I had opted for a glass of orange juice with an omelet stuffed with cheese, onions, mushrooms, ham, and green peppers.  On the side was a serving of fried potatoes, mixed fruit, and a toasted roll.  Normally I like to provide a picture of the fine meals provided by B & Bs, but as I sit here and write, I have just realized that I enjoyed that fantastic repast without snapping a photo.

But take my word, it was quite wonderful and it looked good, too.  The fried potatoes had just the right blend of crunch, salt, and pepper.  The omelet was a taster’s delight.  The roll was made just so and the fruit was nice and fresh.

Now I’m just going to pack and kill a little time before beginning the final leg of my journey to Arlington, TX.  And, yes, I used Google Maps to refigure my route out of Norman.

 

Cotton Patch Redux, Day 1: Sanctuary

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The Woodward

Hello, dear readers, it’s nice to see you again.  I’m so glad you are able to join me for one of my biggest projects to date.

For my regular readers, you may remember that over the summer I visited the town of Whitehall, MI so I could review the play Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse.  Due to the success of that review, I pursued an opportunity with the Repertory Company Theatre of Richardson, TX which offered me a free ticket to review its production of that show.  So I found myself on a frosty February morning heading down south to enjoy a worshipful play and escape from Old Man Winter’s grip on Omaha.

Continuing the weather trend from my escapades in Iowa over the holiday season, Omaha was hammered by a winter storm the day before I was set to leave for Texas.  Thankfully, this time I did not have to drive in it and the road crews had a chance to clean things up pretty well before I went on my way.

One of the more enjoyable things about this drive was that I was finally seeing some new scenery.  There are two main interstates out of the city (I-29 and I-80) that I normally have to take whenever I begin these excursions.  This time, I got to take Hwy 75 pretty much straight to my first stop in Topeka, KS.

It was very peaceful to travel through the smaller towns of Nebraska and enjoy traditional Americana.  I also considered it to be a fast forward view to spring as I watched winter’s clutch on the state weaken the further south I got.  By the time I reached the Nebraska City area, the snow was a mere dusting and by the time I reached Auburn it was gone, though the weather was still quite cold.

The first leg of the drive seemed to go faster than normal as I admired the countryside and listened to the tunes of my MP3.  Before I knew it I had arrived in Kansas’ capital city.

My first stop was at the Woodward Inns at Fillmore which is a hop, skip, and jump from the capitol building.  The Woodward is far more than a B & B.  It’s a little village of its own consisting of one gothic mansion, three stately executive inns, and three family inns with an eighth property set to open later this year that will be a luxury extended stay.

I was staying in the main inn, a Tudor mansion built in 1923 for Chester Woodward who wanted his final estate to be as authentically English as possible.  It is an impressive abode which boasts charmingly gothic rooms and a 2 ½ story library modeled after the King Henry VIII library found at London’s Hampton Hall.  It also features a year round lap pool heated to 90 degrees, though it was closed for cleaning due to a recent storm.

The mansion was bought by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) in 1994 who had built a successful lobbying firm in the Topeka area.  Hearing the call of God to take care of others, she gave up her lobbying career to enter the hospitality field and begin building the empire of the Woodward.

Elizabeth was a most gracious host.  She is extremely knowledgeable about the Topeka area and is a fascinating conversationalist.  She gave me a tour of the mansion and offered to show me some of the other properties after breakfast the next morning.  After exploring the main inn, Elizabeth led me to the Master, my home for the night.

This room was almost too much room for one person.  The room boasts a large 4 poster bed with a fireplace (put to good use on this chilly night and morning) and sitting room.  After getting my stuff settled, my thoughts turned to dinner.

Elizabeth had suggested an eatery run by a friend of hers called the Blind Tiger Brewery and recognized for world championship caliber beers.  The building is quite unique.  I didn’t notice it from the outside, but once I got indoors, the place reminded me of a 3-D puzzle due to its construction and branching hallways.  It would be rather easy to get lost in this place.

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Blind Tiger Brewery

For my dinner, I did a rarity and sampled some of the beers due to its championship reputation.  I had samples of brown ale, Munich Dunkles, pale ale, and raw wheat.  I enjoyed the brown ale and the raw wheat the most.  For my entrée, I enjoyed the Texas Roadrunner which was a grilled chicken breast topped with beef brisket, cheeses, and peppers served on a bed of rice and steak fries.

The Blind Tiger Brewery apparently has a haunted history as Elizabeth suggested I ask about the ghost tour which I did, but there wasn’t anybody there who knew enough about the history to tell me the story.  So I returned to the mansion, organized some photos, set up the artificial fire for the night and hit the hay.

I awoke the next morning feeling ravenous.  I headed to the dining room where I found goblets of water and black cherry/cranberry juice waiting for me.  I sipped the glass of juice and found the fusion of the two fruits worked very well.

Within a few moments, Elizabeth brought me my breakfast which was an oven baked pancake with orange maple syrup, cream, blueberries, and bananas.  I managed to eat the fruit, but only made it halfway through the pancake before I felt full.

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Oven baked pancake with fruit and black cherry/cranberry juice

After breakfast, Elizabeth had her associate, Sarah, show me around her new properties called the Woodward Row Houses.  These will be luxury extended stay rooms and they look very nice.  My favorite was the basement studio apartment which is one of the nicest apartments I have ever seen.

Alas, it seemed my time came to an end too soon.  Currently I am putting the finishing touches on this article before beginning the next leg of my journey which will bring me to Norman, OK.

But if you are in the Topeka area, take some time to visit one of the many rooms of the Woodward.  You will find rooms suited to all tastes on the financial spectrum and one amazing innkeeper in Elizabeth Taylor.

Triumphant “Frost/Nixon” Goes the Distance

Edwin Starr’s War is the perfect segue into Frost/Nixon which opens at the Blue Barn Theatre on Feb 4 for a war is what you will get.  Disgraced former President, Richard Nixon, verbally spars with talk show host, David Frost, in a series of in depth interviews in which only one man can emerge victorious.  For Nixon, it is a chance to resurrect his blasted political career.  For Frost, it is a chance to revive his dwindling TV career.

This play is good.

I mean it’s REALLY good.

Not only do I consider Frost/Nixon to be one of the best shows of the season, I also consider it to be one of the best (possibly the best) shows mounted on the Blue Barn’s stage.  Peter Morgan’s script crackles with taut, intense dialogue mixed with interesting characters that actors can really sink their teeth into and a story that will keep viewers enthralled from the first syllable to the final verbal riposte.

Randall Stevens’ direction and staging are dead on accurate as his actors weave the story of the setup, preparation, and execution of, arguably, the greatest political interview of all time.  His actors know their beats, fully realize their characters, and have the best diction I have ever heard out of a cast.

While a great deal of the play does focus around Frost and Nixon, the show’s supporting cast deserves recognition for their rock solid performances.

Matthias Jeske is especially impressive as John Birt, the producer of the interviews.  With ramrod posture and a spot-on accent, Jeske is indeed very, very British, but his delivery adds a warmth and friendship to the character as he tries to ready Frost for the upcoming conflict.  Dave Wingert does well with his interpretation of Bob Zelnick, the editor of the interviews.  Wingert bestows a genuine likability on Zelnick and expertly communicates Zelnick’s ability to navigate the morass of politics’ underbelly.  Brent Spencer has a nice turn as slimy agent, Swifty Lazar, who is devoted to getting as much money for Nixon, and himself, as possible.

Ben Beck is marvelous as James Reston.  Reston has no love for Nixon and is bound and determined to see him pay for his crimes and abuses of power.  This is a role that could easily gravitate to the obvious choice of anger, but, in Beck’s capable hands, it becomes a clinic in nuanced acting.  Beck plays the role of Reston with a quiet intensity.  His hatred for Nixon actually seeps from his pores, but he is never angry.  He simply wants justice.  This need for justice falls just shy of getting Nixon at any cost, but Beck ably shows the intellectual side of Reston as he constantly searches for the smoking gun needed to pry an admission of guilt from Nixon’s clamped jaws.

On the other side is James Brennan, Nixon’s chief of staff, and played with confident assuredness by Mike Markey.  Brennan and Reston make for interesting mirror images as Reston’s hunger for Nixon’s punishment is matched by Brennan’s staunch loyalty to and protectiveness of the former President.  Markey plays Brennan with a military preciseness.  I truly enjoyed his eagerness as he fully believes the Frost interviews will get Nixon back in the political game.  His loyalty is also unimpeachable as he tries to protect Nixon by attempting to get Frost to log all of Nixon’s failings under Watergate and buying his boss valuable time during the climactic final interview with Frost.

Ultimately, this play does need to be supported by the two lead actors and Stevens found two mighty thespians to carry the burden of this production in the forms of Aaron Zavitz and Paul Boesing.  One could not envision better casting as the chemistry between Zavitz and Boesing seems so right.  At times friends of a sort and at others, bitter rivals, Zavitz and Boesing decisively explore the many levels of their own characters and their unique relationship and present it to the audience in a storytelling masterpiece.

Boesing not only has a firm grip on Nixon’s mannerisms, but he also bears an uncanny resemblance to the controversial politician.  Boesing’s Nixon is the politician’s politician.  He oozes a charm that almost borders on insincerity and is prepared for almost any contingency.  He easily bats off inconvenient questions by tooting his own horn and is quite adept at turning dangerous situations to his own advantage.

But Boesing also makes you feel real sympathy for Nixon in the rare moments when Nixon takes his mask off.  For all of his political savvy, Nixon never felt likable despite choosing a profession where that quality is essential.  His body language is also spectacular, especially when the life slowly bleeds from his body when Frost finally gets his fingers around Nixon’s proverbial throat.

Aaron Zavitz mesmerizes with his interpretation of David Frost.  Zavitz’s Frost is a gadfly.  He is simply a talk show host with an ability to hold real, albeit simple, conversations.  He is not a hard-hitting investigative journalist.  He picks Nixon as an interview subject solely to save his dying career.  Zavitz’s Frost claims he can wring a confession from Nixon, but has no plan in how to do so.

Zavitz’s finest moments come during the interview sessions with Nixon.  Markey’s Brennan compares the interviews to a boxing match in which the challenger finds himself sorely outclassed at the beginning and I found that apropos as Zavitz convincingly portrays a man who is out of his depth.  His body language well conveyed his uncertainty and doubt with slumped shoulders and laid back posture as Nixon controls the tempo of the interviews.

That all changes with a nighttime phone conversation that galvanizes Frost.  Zavitz demonstrates this newfound strength by standing straighter, expanding his chest, and adopting a firmer sitting posture during the last interview.  That final interview is truly an actor’s, not to mention audience member’s, delight as Zavitz’s Frost takes the fight to Nixon with haymaker questions to K.O. Nixon once and for all.

Martin Marchitto’s TV studio set is a perfect match for the setting of this show and the actors are well costumed by Lindsey Pape.  Bill Grennan’s projections also enhance the story as the images are projected onto a gigantic television on Marchitto’s set.

I was fortunate to be permitted to see a technical rehearsal of this show and I tell you now, I’ve seen full productions that haven’t had as much polish.  The few missteps in tonight’s performance were simply the ones one would expect to see as the show goes through its final tweaks.  As hard as it may be to believe, this show is actually going to become more amazing than it already is as Stevens and his crew continue to tidy and tighten things.  The Feb 6 show is already sold out, so buy a ticket before the rest of them vanish.

When pushed to the edge one either finds the strength to win or gets shoved off the cliff.  When two people pushed to the same edge duel, only one can survive.  Frost/Nixon presents that struggle in the most definitive and triumphant fashion imaginable.

Frost/Nixon plays at the Blue Barn Theatre from Feb 4-28.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  There is no show on Feb 7. Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit their website at www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.