An Independent Man in Independence, MO: The Silver Heart Inn

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It was a scorching summer’s day to start another of my little road trips.  But a little AC and some tunes made for a very quick and pleasant drive.

I was off to Independence, MO where I would be staying at the Silver Heart Inn, owned and operated by Perry and Melanie Johnson, as well as reviewing The Crucible for the Barn Players.

I only made one miscalculation for the trip.  With only an overnight stay planned, I had to be selective in the activities I chose to do.  I decided to visit the Truman Presidential Museum and Library and figured an hour would be enough time to get through it.

It was not enough time.

I did manage to get through Truman’s presidential years, but did not make it through the section detailing his personal life.  Rest assured, I will rectify this error if and when my travels bring me through this area again.

Truman was a very interesting President.  He was a common man who came from a period where you didn’t have to be wealthy to run for the Presidency.  He was a simple farmer who had deep ties to labor.  He wasn’t a good speaker.  He was put into power by a political machine, yet he was a incredibly honest man who vowed to get things done the right way.  Despite holding the prejudices of his time and place, Truman helped launch the Civil Rights movement after observing the horrible treatment of black people after World War II.  He made the decision to drop the atomic bomb.  Truman also had the biggest upset in political history when he was reelected to the Presidency in his own right when it was believed he would be crushed by his opponent, Thomas Dewey.  This was due to his Whistlestop Campaign where he rode a train through numerous communities to share his message, sometimes speaking at a dozen stops a day.

What I found most interesting about Truman was that he seemed to have no aspirations to be President.  It was his everyman quality (especially his ties to farming and labor) that secured his nomination for the Vice Presidency.  In reality, the Democrats were really looking for the next President as it was obvious FDR would not be long for the world.  In fact, he died shortly after he was reelected to his fourth term.

I also had great respect for Truman’s decency.  When his term of office expired, he was not a wealthy man and could have earned fat fees doing public speaking tours, but he refused to trade on the office of President.  Instead, he founded the Presidential Library which was the first in our country and I look forward to completing my tour of the museum some future day.

About 3pm, I headed to Silver Heart Inn to check in.  I pulled into the parking area, sidestepped a few chickens wandering about the property, and headed to the back door entrance where I was quickly greeted and led to my room.

I had been expecting to stay in the Roy Gamble Room, but was upgraded to the Napolian Stone Room instead.  It was one of the smaller rooms I had stayed in, but I enjoyed the rich brown of the walls, the soft and comfortable queen bed, and the gas fireplace.  I made my normal explorations and then killed a couple of hours reading Face to Face by Ellery Queen and brushing up on Silver Heart Inn’s history.

The Silver Heart Inn was built 1856 by local businessman, Napolian Stone.  The house used to be twice its original size and originally built in a T formation.  That changed when Judge George Jennings, the house’s owner in 1923 had the house split in half and moved to the same side of the street.  This was done as Jennings recognized that Noland Street (where the home is located) was becoming Independence’s main thoroughfare.  The inn, itself, was the back wing of the house.  The front wing fell into disrepair and was destroyed in the 1960s.

At 5pm, I headed off for an early dinner.  I once again dined at Corner Café, which you may remember from my trip to Liberty, MO about a year ago.

The restaurant was packed so I took advantage of my solo status to dine at the counter.  I ordered the Turkey Melt, one of the house specials, with a side of loaded French Fries.  Within five minutes of my hour, a plate of piping hot food appeared which I relished as I continued to read my novel.

Once fed, I drove to Mission, KS to enjoy another stellar production by the Barn Players.  It was one of the finest dramas I had ever watched and I could not wait to get back to the inn to start writing.  You can read the review here.

After I finished writing, I curled up in my bed for a restful night’s slumber.

When I awoke the next morning, I drew a hot bath and enjoyed a long soak before wandering downstairs in search of breakfast.

Breakfast was a rather pleasant, if quiet, affair.  I continued reading my mystery as I enjoyed a dish of yogurt, blueberries, granola, and cream for an appetizer followed by the main entrée of turkey sausage (I think) and an Eggs Benedict omelet served with goblets of water and orange juice.  After this tasty affair, I settled up my bill and headed off to worship services at St Mark’s before heading for home.

I definitely would recommend a stay at Silver Heart Inn if you find yourself in the Independence area.  It’s quiet and comfortable and you’ll get yourself a tasty meal (and some other perks offered by the inn if you’re so inclined).  You’ll just be minutes away from the Truman Museum and can’t pick up a little history if you wish.

Until the next time, happy travels.

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Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 1-2: Experiencing Lincoln & Cotton Patchful

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Sometimes fate gives you a chance at redemption.

As my regular readers may remember, about a year ago I was in Arlington, TX in order to review Cotton Patch Gospel for the Repertory Company Theatre when a series of unfortunate circumstances exploded that attempt.  If you need a refresher or just need to read the story for the first time, click here.  A few months ago I found that the show would be playing in the much, much closer venue of Springfield, IL at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.  I got in touch with their executive and artistic director, Gus Gordon, and arranged a media ticket to review the show and looked forward to a trip to Illinois’ capital city in early March.

My journey did not start with the normal sense of joy that I usually have with these road trips.  Part of it was just general antsyness about wanting to get to Illinois.  The other part was my irritation at being unceremoniously turned away from an event I was asked to be part of on the previous night.

A rest stop in Hannibal, MO served to restore much of my good humor.  After lunching at Wendy’s, I found myself in a decidedly better frame of mind and the rest of the drive felt like my normal road experiences.

A few hours later, I found myself in Petersburg (about 20 miles outside of Springfield) and my home away from home:  Branson House Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Norma and John Stiltz.  John also happens to be the mayor of Petersburg.

Branson House is an Eastlake Victorian home built in 1876 by Nathaniel Branson for his wife, Frances.  The house boasts 7 marble fireplaces and, believe it or not, an elevator.  When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by Norma who gave me the nickel tour of the home before leading me to Uncle Billy’s Retreat, my room for the next few nights.  And, yes, of course I used the elevator.  It would have been impolite not to have used it.

Uncle Billy’s Retreat was a most comfortable room, indeed.  It boasted a large iron framed king bed with an electric fireplace, sitting chair & footstool, and a day bed in the corner.  After doing my usual reconnaissance, I relaxed for a bit before heading over to Springfield to get some dinner and locate the Hoogland.

Downtown Springfield does require a little getting used to as the roads are a criss cross of one way streets, but after I went back and forth a couple of times, I found myself expertly navigating the streets.  Within a short time, I arrived at D & J’s Café for a little old fashioned comfort food.

Any lingering frustrations to the start of my day vanished with that meal.  I enjoyed a patty melt with bacon which was apparently just what the doctor ordered.  A side of crinkle fries and a Mountain Dew helped to complete the cure as I chewed merrily away and completed a rereading of Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Upon returning to the inn, I organized some photos and then hit the sack.

The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed.  I headed to my bathroom and took a long hot shower before heading downstairs to breakfast.  Norma had prepared some wonderfully thick pancakes with a dish of kiwi, blueberries, and strawberries, plus an egg pizza with cheese and chives.  I’m not usually a fan of strawberries, but these were quite delectable and I savored every mouthful of my meal while reading Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma, the latest novel from my favorite Holmesian pastiche writer, Larry Millet.  I also formally met John who graciously brought me the local paper.

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Pancakes, fruit, and egg pizza

With the inner man restored, I headed to Springfield to indulge in a bit of history.  Springfield was the home of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln and his tomb, museum, and library are all located in downtown Springfield.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is well worth a visit for a very interactive study of the life of Mr. Lincoln.  I’ve always had a great deal of admiration and respect for Honest Abe, but I was stunned to find out how much I didn’t know about him.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

His formal schooling lasted less than a year and he was a self-taught reader and lawyer.  I was even more shocked to find out that he began his presidency as our most hated leader.  Let that one sink in.  It was a particularly contentious election with 4 candidates.  Lincoln managed to win a decisive Electoral College victory thanks to the northern states (he actually didn’t make the ballot in many southern states), but only had 40% of the popular vote.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  It also seemed like he could do no right as anything and everything he did brought hatred and vitriol upon him.  I was genuinely shocked to see the numerous hateful articles and political cartoons written and drawn about Lincoln.  History, of course, has vindicated him.

The museum is split into several sections.  One is dedicated to his life before the White House, another to his presidency and the Civil War, another to the Library next door, another to rare family treasures, but the best section is an interactive movie theatre that briefly describes Lincoln’s life.  The film showed me that Lincoln had an interesting duality in personality.  Despite being a popular wit and storyteller, Lincoln was also plagued by doubt and melancholy.  I also learned that Lincoln may very well have been near death even without the aid of John Wilkes Booth’s bullet.

Two busts of Lincoln done after he won the presidency each time show the ravage that leading during the Civil War wrought on him.  Underweight to begin with, Lincoln was almost skeletal going into his second term.  One noted sculptor thought the second bust was a death mask.  Studies of pictures of Lincoln after his first term seem to support the theory that he may not have been long for the world.

After my moving and enlightening education, I took a walk down to the Hoogland to get a picture of it.  On my walk, I passed the old and current state capitols and also met a homeless guy who needed a sympathetic ear.  He was quite philosophical and well versed on our current state of politics.  I ended up giving him $5 so he could get a sandwich.

I got my picture of the Hoogland, then returned to my car where I drove back to Branson House to relax a bit before dinner.

At 4:30, I got cleaned up and into my suit for the evening’s activities.  I drove back to Springfield, hoping to eat at the Chesapeake Seafood House, but it was jammed to the rafters.  It would have taken 45 minutes just to seat me.  Luckily, I remembered passing a restaurant called Alexander’s Steakhouse as I entered town, so I rushed back then, where I was able to be seated immediately.

I think I ended up getting the better deal as Alexander’s had one of the best salad bars I have enjoyed.  They also brought me a perfectly chargrilled Atlantic salmon with some hand cut Idaho steak fries.  After a tasty dinner, I hopped over to the Hoogland.

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Hoogland Center for the Arts

It was a magical night of theatre.  The Hoogland is actually home to several theatres and I met Gus Gordon who was a warm and friendly guy.  I also met Ken Bradbury, the director of Cotton Patch Gospel whose expression of “I’ll be damned” still brings a smile to my face when he found out I had traveled from Omaha to review his show.  And the show was excellent.  You can read my review here.

With bluegrass music playing in my head, I returned to the inn to write my review and get a good night’s rest.

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.