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Come to feel, think and applaud

Many theater companies are neither willing nor able to move from a bubbly musical directly into a disturbing death-row drama based on real life. Colonial Players is the exception, following November’s Annie with Coyote on a Fence.
    Coyote on a Fence is what Colonial calls an “arc” show, more challenging than usual and typically appealing to a smaller arc of patrons. Opening night proved that this production is deserving of larger, not smaller, audiences.
    Bruce Graham’s play focuses on long-time death row inmate John Brennan, the middle-aged editor of the prison newspaper who writes obituaries of each inmate put to death. Brennan is a fervent but deluded believer in his own innocence. Most on death row say they, too, are innocent.
    Except Bobby Reyburn. A late-20s, anti-Semite racist who gets the cell next to Brennan after burning down an African American church and killing 37 people, Reyburn says he was called to his work by God and was spoon-fed hate by a trusted uncle.
    The interplay between Bobby, who welcomes his execution, and John, who has exhausted every legal avenue on the way to his, demands two actors who not only commit to their characters but are consistent in their interpretations even as their characters hit sharply emotional highs and lows. Thom Sinn as John and Eddie Hall as Bobby meet that demand. A lesser actor might have allowed the histrionic Bobby to become a caricature, but Hall, under the capable direction of Colonial veteran Edd Miller, never does so. He and Sinn together take the audience on a journey that makes us care about them despite their violent pasts.
    Prison guard Shawna (an earthy Kecia Campbell) keeps a close eye on things. But outside the prison, she meets an unseen reporter in a series of monologues. Among her topics are how she feels safer on the inside among convicted killers than in the real world. Shawna’s final monologue is a heartbreaker.
    Another reporter works his way into Brennan’s confidence. Nicely underplayed by Jeff Sprague, Sam Fried’s condescension and conflict over the death penalty are no match for Brennan’s passion.
    Miller is one of the few directors who successfully uses Colonial’s in-the-round space. His set design puts all the action on the floor in front of us, avoiding the annoying neck craning too often required to watch scenes in the theater’s corners. The two cells abut, with an outside recreation area marked by a stark wire fence and a small area representing Shawna’s bar.
    Adding to the stark aura is Carl Andreasen’s and Theresa Riffle’s haunting sound design, a near-constant drone of background voices occasionally interrupted by the scream of an inmate or the physical shock and loud finality of a metal prison door trapping us all.
    Frank Florentine’s tight lighting evokes the sterility of the place, from harsh lights dimming upon an execution to the eerie green illuminating the empty cell of the newly executed.
    Coyote is the 14th show Miller has directed at Colonial. His Going to St. Ives was awarded best play and best director in the coveted Washington Area Theater Community Awards in 2012. Coyote on a Fence is likely to attract the same consideration.
    Warning: Save the pre-show cocktails for post. The play runs one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.

Playing thru Jan. 25 ThFSa 8pm & Su Jan. 19, 2 & 7:30pm at 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/discounts: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Don’t miss this gem of the American stage

Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” A decade before coining that phrase, he showed us why in his 1929 debut novel Look Homeward Angel. This thinly veiled memoir of a tumultuous youth in his mother’s Dixieland Boardinghouse made him a pariah in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and a literary star to the rest of the nation. The 1958 stage adaptation by Ketti Frings won every major prize for American drama that year, and it still rings true and relevant.
    Compass Rose Theater’s beautiful production stars a talented University of Maryland grad, Shane O’Loughlin, in the lead role of Eugene Gant. A bookish young man, he yearns for education and escape from his overbearing mother, Eliza (artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne), and his romantic but alcoholic father, W.O. Gant (Gary Goodson) Bret Jaspers costars as elder brother Ben, the cynical voice of experience who urges Eugene to flee. Who can blame them? Life with Eliza, the self-proclaimed “sharpest trader in town,” is no tea party. In a perpetual quest for cash, she puts the comfort of strangers above the needs of her own family, whom she manipulates into doing her bidding.
    Dapper Ben isn’t healthy enough to escape to World War I, as did his brother Luke (Chris Creane). So he helps in Father’s monument shop and passes the evenings at dingy Dixieland with a sympathetic older boarder  named Fatty (Janise Whelan). Big sister Helen (Kathryn Zoerb) and her husband Hugh (Dan Reno) are likewise caught in Eliza’s clutches as near servants. The other boarders are Uncle Will (Ed Klein); old Mrs. Clatt (Nancy Long); her son Jake (Eli Pendry); and a charming new arrival, Laura James (Lindsay Clemmons), who brings Eugene his first happiness and heartache. Dr. McGuire (Richard Fiske) is a frequent visitor to the home as well. Only the notorious Madame Elizabeth (Maura Claire Harford) never crosses the threshold, though she is on good terms with Father.
    From the melee, Eugene’s transformation from guileless gopher to mutineer is remarkable, culminating in a confrontation that will shake you to your weepy bones. Drawing equally on the strength of all the leads, this production gets four stars for credibility: from the sharp period fashions to the missing newels on the faded front porch to the manner of the family’s explosion with love and disdain. The only unbelievable part is Eliza and Father’s tantrum, which is too gentle on the set. I hope they go wild on closing night.

Director: Patrick Walsh. Set: Mary Goodson. Costumes: Linda Swann. Lights: Cecilia Durbin. 2.5 hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Playing thru Feb. 9. Th (except Jan. 30) FSa 8pm Sa Feb. 1 & 8 and Su 2pm at 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis. $35 w/discounts: 410-980-6662; www.compassrosetheater.org.

A recent solar flare could present Northern Lights to Southerners

A powerful solar flare on January 7 launched a barrage of plasm our way, which has the chance of producing auroras at much lower latitudes than usual. Scientists expect the activity to begin before dawn Thursday, January 9, which is too late to help given this issue’s release that day. But solar astronomers don’t rule out more blasts to come, as this solar flare, technically called a coronal mass ejection, was caused by an eruption from a massive and very active sunspot, AR1944, which is facing earth head-on. The sunspot, “as wide as seven earths,” NASA reported, is “one of the largest sunspots seen in the last 10 years.”
    Called aurora borealis when seen north of the equator and corona borealis to the south, these displays are the result of powerful bursts of radiation from the sun. Earth’s atmosphere blocks that harmful radiation, or these would be lethal events, but as the charged particles collide with earth’s own magnetically charged atmosphere, they produce a vivid and eerie light show. While these aurora are harmless to life, they can wreak havoc on our satellites, disrupting GPS, cellular reception and radio and television transmissions. The flare has already forced private space company Orbital Sciences to delay the launch of an unmanned cargo craft to the International Space Station.
    Any chance to see the so-called Northern Lights as far south as the Chesapeake is well worth keeping an eye on the sky over the next few nights.
    The moon is also busy this week. It visits over the weekend, to the left of the moon Friday night, look for the Pleiades star cluster. At first glance the Pleiades appear as a fuzzy patch of light in the constellation Taurus. But closer examination on a clear night reveals six stars shaped like a miniature dipper.
    Saturday the Pleiades are above the moon, while below the moon is Aldebaran, the red eye of the bull, and the Hyades star cluster.
    On Tuesday, the near-full moon is five degrees south of Jupiter. Tuesday, January 7, marked the anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s 1610 discovery of Jupiter’s largest three moons,  Io, Europa and Ganymede (he discovered Callisto a few days later). Today, a good pair of binoculars will reveal more of mighty Jove’s orbiting satellite’s than the great astronomer’s first telescope.
    Wednesday the 15th marks January’s full Wolf Moon, which also reaches apogee, its farthest point in orbit from earth, making this full moon the smallest of the year.
    Venus reaches inferior conjunction, Saturday, passing between the earth and sun, leaving our morning skies only to reappear as the Evening Star thereafter. Unlike the transit of Venus in 2012, this time Venus will pass five degrees north of the sun — still far too close to watch without a solar filter. Viewed with telescope or binoculars and the proper eye protection, our sister planet appears as a wide but razor-thin crescent.

That’s the closest you can get to fishing when winter howls

The 10-day weather forecast calls for wind and consistently low temperatures, occasionally a bit of rain and clouds. Not the kind of outlook that lifts your spirits, unless you’re a waterfowler. I hadn’t joined a hunt club this season, so that didn’t include me.
    Worse yet, I had chores on my conscience. I had cleaned most of my fishing tackle late in November — only to need it again for early December’s last-minute rockfish bite. So half of my tackle was fouled, awaiting another cleaning. I had also neglected to put on my reel covers for the winter, so my collection of rigs has been accumulating light dust flavored with errant dog and cat hair.
    Still, the next best thing to fishing is fooling with fishing tackle. So this week I took a deep breath and got to business. The dust and hair I conquered with a medium-width, soft-bristle nylon paintbrush that I keep handy for the PC keyboard.
    Next I clipped off leftover terminal rigs, cleaning the outfits over a large towel I could shake outside. The tackle with fish slime and salt residue took longer to rectify. Then I hit everything with a light coat of silicone, sat back and took stock of the situation.
    It had been a long time since I had done any internal maintenance: drag washer cleaning and regreasing; bearing lubrication; level wind and casting brake attention. All these ensure that the next season starts out trouble-free. Early fishing is no time for a long series of problem-solving interruptions.
    I had a bit of work ahead of me. That’s because of my fondness for multiple rigs: bait-casting setups for chumming; others, slightly different, for live-lining; yet others for light-plug casting; stiffer sticks for heavier plugs and jigging; and light spin outfits for perch.
    I had done little plug casting the past season, so I decided those outfits could wait. But all of the bait rigs and perch rods had seen extensive use.
    My preferred bait-casting reels, Abu Garcia Ambassaduer 5600s, have to be taken apart before anything can be done to them. My outfits are modified with Abu Soft Grip Power Handles and Carbontex drag washers. Everything else is stock. A YouTube video details disassembly and service: www.youtube.com/
watch?v=7k9Hb75gXJg.
    Another video that covers a Shimano spin reel is analogous to just about all fixed spool reels: www.youtube.com/
watch?v=kflr4kraG50.
    Shimano, Okuma, Penn and other manufacturers all have similar website support for specific reel models.
    It looks like classic winter is descending upon us. Don’t squander your cabin-bound hours with TV or video games. Maintain your tackle and dream of next season.

Four SEALs fight for their lives in this gripping action film

Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg: 2 Guns), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch: Savages), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch: Bonnie and Clyde) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) are proud frogmen. They run long distances at great speeds, push their bodies to their limit for fun and take deadly assignments as part of the job.
    The latest mission should be an easy one. Their task is to scout a village in the woods of Afghanistan, positively identify a terrorist cell leader (code named Rick James) and report back to headquarters. Next, they’ll either get permission to eliminate the target, or fade into the shadows.
    The mission goes haywire because of three men and their goats. Herding their flock up a mountain, two boys and their father literally stumble on the frogmen. The SEALs have a choice: Kill the goatherds, or let them go possibly to return with an army of angry terrorists.
    Can the four team make it out of Afghanistan alive?
    Lone Survivor isn’t coy about what happens; it’s spelled out in the title. Though you know early that only one SEAL leaves the mountain, the film is a thrilling, gut-wrenching portrayal of a real incident. Stay through the credits to see a tribute to the brave men who lost their lives. 
    Director Peter Berg (Battleship) doesn’t bother with artistic shots or subtle imagery. His straightforward storytelling style doesn’t leave much room for nuance or character development. What he does well is convey the actuality of life for men stationed overseas. The opening credits show footage of actual SEAL training and how extreme it can be. Other effective sequences invoke the shadows of the people back home, whether the men are chatting with wives or wondering what to buy their fiancée.
    Berg also delivers on action, making the SEALs’ fight for survival brutal and terrifying. Gunfights in real life probably don’t come with visual metaphors and a soaring soundtrack, so Berg’s pared-down approach seems realistic. Berg views these SEALs as nearly superhuman, and his admiration shows in every shot.
    Keeping the SEALs from becoming action heroes are the actors entrusted with their story. Wahlberg, Foster, Kitsch and Hirsch keep their characters grounded in reality, showing their flaws as well as their dedication and drive. Together, the cast creates a tangible sense of brother­hood.

Good Action • R • 121 mins.

But learn their tastes, and they’ll give you flowers

Are your African violets blooming?    
    If not, read on to learn why and what you can do to bring out the flowers.
    African violets’ long-standing popularity grows from lush foliage and their habit of winter flowering. The plants are challenging, but not more than many in-home gardeners can manage. Even propagation is possible with a little knowledge on your part.
    African violets are shade-loving plants whose leaves scorch under the direct rays of the sun. Grow yours in places where they receive only diffused light. Or try growing lights.
    When you re-pot, use only a rich organic rooting medium that has been sterilized. You’ll find the right mix at garden supply stores, or you can sterilize your own in the microwave. Heat a gallon of moist rooting medium for 10 to 12 minutes on high.
    African violet varieties are vast because these popular plants have been hybridized extensively. Cultivars range from miniatures to larger than normal, with varying types of petals, flower colors and velvety foliage.
    Not all the hybridizing has produced good qualities. In breeding, some desirable characteristics such as disease resistance, wet-soil tolerance and plant vigor have been compromised. Many of the new cultivars require special care. Some want to be grown in sterile rooting media. Others demand extreme care in watering, refusing to tolerate over-watering or wet foliage. Still others can’t abide fertilizer accumulation along the edges of their pot. Even winter flowering has been lost in some cultivars.
    African violets are picky about temperature. If they don’t like the temperature where they live, they won’t flower.
    Many of the new cultivars will flower consistently only when temperatures remain constant. Older cultivars flowered best where temperatures were warm during the day and cool at night. The windowsill was often the best place for growing African violets. Today’s African violets are best grown in the middle of the room where temperatures remain more constant.
    It’s still true that you should avoid wetting the foliage when watering the pots. If you typically water from the bottom up, change over once a month and water from the top down to prevent fertilizer salts from accumulating along the top edge of the pots. Accumulated fertilizer salts will burn the petiols, or stalks, of the lower leaves in contact with the edge of the pot. Fertilizer salts appear as tiny gray-green granules clinging to the inside edge of the pot starting from the surface of the rooting medium. If you’ve got them, scrape them off.
    Have I answered all your questions about raising African violets? If not, write and ask and I’ll reply.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

Our closest approach to the sun does make for the shortest season

Twilight Thursday and Friday evening reveals the new crescent moon low in the southwest with Venus blazing a few degrees away tight against the horizon. Venus sinks lower in the early evening sky over the next week, finally disappearing between the sun and earth on January 11. Then, after a few days absence, it reappears in pre-dawn skies, where it will blaze as the Morning Star until autumn.
    Moonless skies provide a dark backdrop for this year’s Quadrantid meteor shower, which is at its best in the wee hours before dawn Friday and Saturday. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Boötes, but can appear anywhere in the sky. The Quadrantids can produce from 50 to 100 meteors an hour, but timing — or more aptly, luck — is essential, as this shower peaks within just a few hours, and then it’s over.
    You shouldn’t have any trouble spotting Jupiter, which reaches opposition Sunday, when it will shine in our night skies from sunset until sunrise, far brighter than any star. At opposition, the gaseous giant is its closest to earth and farthest from the sun, with earth right between the two.
    Mars rises around midnight and is high in the south as daybreak approaches. Far below the red planet is Saturn, actually a little brighter but harder to see so tight against the horizon.
    Saturday, earth reaches its closest point to the sun for the year — called perihelion. At that point the sun is roughly 3 million miles closer to the sun than it is at aphelion in July. While 3 million miles may seem like a lot, the distance has little correlation with the change of seasons, which are a result of earth’s 231⁄2-degree tilted axis. It does, however, affect the length of the seasons, since when the earth is nearest the sun it is also traveling its fastest — more than three percent faster than at aphelion. As a result, the seasons come and go quicker this time of year, with the time between December’s solstice and March’s equinox almost five days shorter than from June’s solstice until September’s equinox. As a result, winter is the shortest season for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.
    Saturday, two weeks after solstice, is the latest sunrise of the year. Sunrise comes a few seconds earlier than the day before, and while the change will be subtle at first, by the end of the month the sun will rise more than 10 minutes earlier than it does now.

Get out and dig to be ready for spring

If you did a good job of building your compost pile last fall, now is a good time to stimulate more microbial activity.
    Just before Christmas, temperatures in my compost pile dropped below 100 degrees from a high of 130 degrees measured just three weeks earlier. This falling temperature is due partially to a drop in surrounding ambient air and partially to a lower rate of microbial activity.
    Microbial activity in composting can fall because of low levels of oxygen, excessive dryness, less available carbon or fewer sources of nitrogen. For most home composting projects, low levels of oxygen are unlikely unless your compost pile is taller and wider than 12 feet. Exchange of gasses is likely to be fine as leaves are bulky and do not pack easily. Thus, compost cooling is most likely due to a sudden drop in ambient air or dryness.
    To check for moisture, thrust your hand into the compost and squeeze firmly. If the composting waste feels wet like a sponge, there is adequate moisture. If the compost feels on the dry side, drag out the hose and wet the pile down with a heavy stream of water. After the compost appears adequately wet, use either a grub-hoe or digging spade, going as deep into the pile as possible while adding more water. The excess water will drain deeper into the composting mass.
    If possible, empty the composting bin and wet the waste before re-filling the bin. Digging into the composting materials will grind the larger particles into smaller pieces, stimulating greater microbial activity. Ground leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    Within a week after you’ve reformed the pile, temperatures within it should increase. However, if your compost pile is less than three feet by three by three, it is not likely to give you much temperature rise due to a lack of mass.

Crappie are at the head of the class, followed by yellow perch

The winter solstice, officially the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year, is already two weeks behind us. This annual planetary event is in another way the beginning of the end of winter. From here on out, daylight hours are growing longer and springtime ever closer.
    That also means the blooming of the new fishing season since the fish, their instincts triggered by this change in the amount of sunlight, begin moving out of their deep water holes to migrate toward shallow water to spawn.
    The first species to react to the sunlight change is crappie, also called specs or calico bass. Crappie are schooling and moving up the tribs into fresher water to reproduce. It’s a bank fishing expedition you’ll need to mount to catch them, with Eastern Shore tributaries being the destination for most everyone chasing these tasty critters.
    However, Patuxent River anglers favoring freshwater impoundments (with their insider info of springtime honey holes) should also begin harvesting slab crappie within days if they haven’t already.
    In the very near future, yellow perch spawning will begin.
    The young males of all fish species are first to show up in the shallows, where they remain the whole of the spawn. The slab crappie and lunker perch generally come later and in surges. There is no way of predicting when. You just have to keep trying.
    Recently, Ed Robinson (a.k.a. The Scout), tortured me with an account of a 100-plus fish day on Dorchester County’s Transquaking River. Though there weren’t a lot of keepers in that crappie bonanza, it is a strong indicator that the new season is exploding.
    Joining in on this first of season fishing is not a difficult task. Arm yourself with a light to medium spin outfit, a few bobbers and some small shad darts in various colors plus a few bottom rigs setup with No. 4 hooks and one-ounce sinkers. Baits can be as exotic as wax worms or as mundane as red wrigglers, minnows and grass shrimp. Rubber boots and warm clothing are an absolute necessity.
    Anglers of all experience levels can choose their destination from the DNR website: www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishingreport/ypercheast.html for the Eastern Shore; or www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishingreport/yperchwest.html for the Western side.
    Early season fisheries are not limited to these two fish. Soon after the yellows, white perch will begin to stir and move up into these same areas. Then the hickory shad and the herring. The latter two species are protected from harvest, but as they suffer little mortality from being hooked this time of year, they are available for catch and release.
    One other aspect of the sport of early season fishing is also critical to continued success. When the commercial fyke nets and fish traps are set by watermen each spring, they will shut down an upper tributary’s recreational fishery faster than an acid spill. If a promising start suddenly dies, head downstream to get below the nets.
    Over all of these first few months, chain pickerel will continue to prowl the same waters. An excellent game fish, they follow the schools of spawning crappie and perch and feed off them, gaining fat and preparing, eventually, for their own reproductive run in March and April. Chain pickerel are a firm, white-fleshed fish and, though they are filled with fine bones, if they are filleted correctly they produce an excellent meal.

Sometimes, you shouldn’t go home again

The only thing that could bring together the Weston women is tragedy. When the family patriarch — poet ­Beverly (Sam Shepard: Out of the Furnace) — goes missing, the three sisters converge at their ancestral home, steeling themselves to deal with old hurts, family secrets and, worst of all, their mother.
    Violet Weston (Meryl Streep: Hope Springs) has been terrorizing her family since anyone can remember. Rude, cruel and high most of the time, Violet loves only her pills and her booze, both stashed around the house in case of emergencies. Two daughters have fled the state, but one has stayed in hopes of earning a kind word.
    Did Violet drive her husband away? Or has he, too, gone on a bender?
    The family emergency comes at the perfect time for all three of the Weston daughters, who are going through tumultuous changes. Ivy, the youngest (Julianne Nicholson: Masters of Sex), lives down the road and resents the sisters who left her to deal with mommy dearest. Ivy has a secret: She’s planning a big escape.
    Middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis: Open Road) devotes her life to finding a replacement for her mother’s love. She’s found a string of terrible men and awful relationships. She’s brought along her latest fiancé — no less a disaster — in hopes of impressing mother.
    Eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts: Mirror Mirror) is also in crisis. Her husband has left and her teenager hates her. Still, she guilts both husband and daughter into joining her, hoping Violet won’t notice the rift.
    Will the Weston women find healing? Or will they join together to kill Violet?
    Based on the play by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County is the film to see if you’ve spent the holidays arguing with family. The comedic drama examines how Violet’s poisonous relationships have infected every aspect of their lives.
    Director John Wells (Shameless) makes Violet’s home cramped and dark if theatrical. The film doesn’t flow easily. Each scene seems more a set piece than a natural progression of storytelling. The only thing missing is a curtain drop.
    Excellent performances save August: Osage County the movie. As the matriarch, Streep is a collection of vices and vicious words overlying a deep sadness that adds pathos to her villainy.
    In a performance that’s both confident and commanding, Roberts stands out. Struggling to suppress her inherited cruelty, her Barbara is a wonder to watch, whether trying to show her daughter love or wrestling her mother to the ground.
    August: Osage County isn’t a film for everyone. There’s enough blue language and abusive behavior to send most holiday audiences running for the exits. But it’s a fantastic showcase for a troupe of powerful actresses.

Good Drama • R • 121 mins.