Author: kevsteph

Drama Review – The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

In The Bonds of Interest Jacinto Benavente presented a farcical tale of a pair of unconventional seventeenth century conmen. This disadvantaged duo duped everyone they met into believing the quiet member of the team a prestigious nobleman. Because of this, everyone granted them luxuries on credit. When part of the scheme entailed marrying the one off to a nobleman’s daughter, the two would discover whether or not the “bonds of interest” could overcome the desire for retribution.

Even though the comedy described an improbable story, the playwright still adhered to sold writing principles. Whenever a narrative focuses upon the exploits of two main characters, one is always portrayed as the dominant of the two. Benavente employed this method to brilliant effect while applying a twist to it.

The tale presented a scheme concocted by Crispin. While the dominant character, he masqueraded as Leander’s servant. When they encountered people, Crispin delivered most, and sometimes all of , the dialog. He touted the praises of his “master”, while serving as the outfit’s mastermind. The playwright balanced this character’s roles through his words very well.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but the playwright crafted a brilliant plot twist regarding Leander. He did so by making him a well-developed character. While a fugitive from justice, he still behaved nobly in regard to his love interest, Silvia. Even though he participated in a large scale scam, he allowed his feelings for Silvia to allow him to express himself honestly.

The playwright used a clever technique to express this inner decency. He did so in the form of an insult. Crispin told Silvia’s father:

And after all, the only trouble with my master was that he had no money; no one could out do him in nobility of character; your grandchildren will be gentlemen even if that quality does not extend up to the grandfather. (Location 1683)

Leander’s transition illustrated exceptional writing ability on Benavente’s part. I applaud him even more for working it into a farcical story.

The Bonds of Interest included several memorable lines. My favorites included:

Men are like merchandise; they are worth more or less according to the salesman who markets them. (Location 1779)

It is as foolish to trust a man while he lives as a woman while she loves. (Location 661)

Love is all subtleties and the greatest subtlety of them all is not that lovers deceive others—it is that they so easily can deceive themselves. (Location 1240)

I had rather deal with a thousand knaves than one fool. (Location 1550)

With the understanding that the play was a farce regarding an unbelievable series of events, I only had one criticism of it. I admit it’s not a fair one, either. The drama premiered in 1907 and the writing style reflected that of the early twentieth century. At times I read some excessive exposition.

In the following example, Crispin explained his and Leander’s back story.

…But more than this, have you forgotten that they are searching for us in other parts and following on our heels? Can it be that all those glorious exploits of Mantua and Florence have been forgotten? Do you recall that famous lawsuit in Bologna? Three thousand two hundred pages of testimony already admitted against us before we withdrew in alarm at the sight of such prodigious expansive ability! (Location 1261)

To paraphrase Stephen King: everyone has a backstory. Most of it isn’t very interesting. It becomes even less exciting when a character keeps making the same point through consecutive sentences.

While first performed in 1907, The Bonds of Interest contains humor that still resonates. Combine that with the story of two people struggling to advance their station in life through a preposterous “get rich quick scheme.” That makes it just as entertaining today. To borrow a lesson from the play: don’t believe everything I wrote just because I wrote it. Read Benavente’s drama and decide if it bonds to your interest.



Book Review – Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 masterpiece, Babbitt, told the story of a closet liberal living in a world of conservatives. This group of right wingers pursued conformity for conformity’s sake. And here I thought that Lewis’ 1935 work It Can’t Happen Here was a prescient harbinger of twenty first century America.

The story progression read like a bildungsroman. Many times such tales feature a young protagonist. George F. Babbitt aged into his mid-40s during this one. On the surface, the character appeared to experience what we now call a mid-life crisis. Lewis’ prose dug much deeper into the character’s psyche for such a glib description. The novel explored his personal awakening. It progressed into a classic of American tragedy.

The author selected the perfect setting for Babbitt’s conflict. Aside from his inner struggle, Lewis “institutionalized” him, if you will, in the homogenous community of Zenith.  It contained a very conservative social atmosphere.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. If it was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it. (Location 2246)

The residents of Zenith adhered to a circumscribed belief system.

All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Location 6163)

The book contained the best examples of Lewis’ satirical wit that I’ve read. The best included:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor -speeding. (Location 729)

He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted all the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (Location 632)

The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. (Location 850)

My personal favorite read as follows.

“Just the same, you don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ‘em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness,” said Virgil Gunch.

“Yes, that’s so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement,” insisted Howard Littlefield. “Congress didn’t understand the right system. Now, if I’d been running the thing, I’d have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights—with the personal liberty—of fellows like ourselves.” (Location 1827)

In spite of Babbitt’s moral shortcomings and self-delusion, I still wanted him to succeed. His struggle between individuality and conformity contains relevance almost a century following the book’s publication. That shows the timeless nature of Sinclair Lewis’ work.


Lecture Review – “The Garden State or Cancer Alley?” by Thomas Belton

Thomas Belton took a pretty eclectic career path on his way to becoming an environmental historian. After receiving a degree in classical languages he ended up working on telephone poles. Following that endeavor, he returned to school with the intent of becoming a doctor. At the time he took an elective class in ornithology. The choice proved rather adventitious as it inspired his interest in the ecology. Once he received his degree in marine biology he made environmental studies his full time pursuit. He landed a job with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection working in their Science and Research division. 2010 marked the time when he could add the task of environmental historian to his resume. At that time Rivergate Books published his tome Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the Garden State. Mr. Belton added lecturer to his list of careers when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown this March 14th. At the Moorestown Library he delivered an address called “The Garden State of Cancer Alley?” based on his book.

Mr. Belton shared a number of vignettes from his career as an environmental scientist. He discussed his participation in a veritable “detective story” that entailed “using science in a Sherlock Holmes sort of way.” He participated in a study to answer why large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were entering Camden’s water supply. Using tools such as Graphic Information Studies he and his team managed to identify them coming from one location in the city.

The speaker explained the significance of PCBs in non-scientific jargon. These chemicals are a known carcinogen. Even the US government recognized their danger. He noted in his book they became the first chemical ever banned by Congress. (Page 38) Mr. Belton spent a good part of his lecture describing his efforts to identify their presence in bluefish off the New Jersey coast then tracing their source. Following that he participated in issuing Fish Public Health Advisories. From this experience, he learned how to explain scientific concepts to lay people through his work with the department’s public relations office.

Because of the study, within five years a ban was placed on offshore dumping. Prior to that, this sort of “dilution is the solution” mentality justified the common practice of dumping sewage and sludge in the ocean.

The provenance of the book’s subtitle comprised part of his remarks. A study showed a large number of people with cancer along the Route One corridor; a stretch of highway extending roughly from Philadelphia to New York City. The finding gave rise to the term “cancer cluster.” The search for an explanation to this phenomenon led to the speaker’s analysis of PCBs in bluefish.

An unintended consequence resulted from one of one of his research projects. Out of curiosity, he investigated whether air pollution in Philadelphia affected the pinelands. Working with an expert in fungi, he determined that it did result in acid rain that fell in the region. These results led to his being called as an expert witness in a lawsuit against businesses in the Ohio River Valley.

The Historical Society really should have scheduled this speaker closer to Halloween. I found many of his remarks absolutely horrifying. He described chromium waste sites in Jersey City while discussing the Brownfield Regulations. For those unfamiliar with the chemical, an oozing green slime indicates its presence. In his discussion of Superfund sites, he explained that many received “temporary” clean-ups over a decade ago. They still require permanent detoxification. The funds are not forthcoming. The “Arsenic and Old Lakes” conclusion of his lecture centered on a topic not covered in his book. It described the environmental repercussions from a pesticide factory that began operation in South Jersey back in 1949. As of 2015, $100 million had been spent to clean up the site. The work still needs to be completed.

I did take some solace in Mr. Belton’s explanation of New Jersey’s environmental reputation. When Superfund became law, states such as New Jersey, Vermont and California took advantage of the opportunity it presented. They cataloged their hazardous sites. In essence, the Garden State earned an unfair reputation for pollution because it made a serious effort to rectify this problem.

Mr. Belton certainly pursued many careers during his time. In fact, he recently added that of award winning author when the New Jersey Council of Humanities named Protecting New Jersey’s Environment an Honor Book in 2010.While I haven’t observed him in his other capacities, I compliment him for his stellar work as an environmental historian and lecturer. Because of his performance, he can add another job to his repertoire. His remarks piqued my curiosity about our environment so much, that I purchased his book. Mr. Belton makes a pretty good salesman, too.



Book Review – White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum presented a fictitious account of the most heinous war crime ever committed. The book detailed one character’s ordeal with the use of rape as a weapon during the largest scale use of it in history. The story also explored the effect of this inhumane practice on those not personally victimized by it. An engrossing read that sears into one’s consciousness resulted.

The book’s title derived from the white chrysanthemum representing a symbol of mourning. It established the tone prior to reading the story.

Mary Lynn Bracht crafted a heartrending tale involving two sisters affected by Japan’s occupation of Korea during the Second World War. The scenes set in the 1940s described Hana’s ordeal after the Japanese military abducted her. In order to protect her younger sister, she gave herself up to a group of soldiers who wandered onto her home island. They transported her into distant Manchuria to serve as a “comfort woman”; the Empire’s choice euphemism for “forced prostitution.”

The scenes that transpired during the modern era (2011) described how Hana’s sister Emi struggled to achieve peace with her past. The historical events plaguing the nascent state of South Korea impacted her on a personal level. A larger part of her emotional battle emanated from her guilt over her sister’s selfless sacrifice.

I liked the author’s choice of structure. The chapters alternated between one that depicted Hana’s suffering in the 1940s with one that told Emi’s journey in the 2010s. Ms. Bracht deftly crafted endings to each story line that kept me interested in learning more. Her suspenseful writing style made it very difficult for me to stop reading.

I also applaud the way the author returned to each character’s tale after just one chapter. Ms. Bracht built tension and engaged the reader without dragging out the story. She executed this balance exceptionally.

The author made a great decision to write in the present tense. It gave me a sense that the events occurred while I read. The story possessed a sense of immediacy that enhanced the tension. Hana’s torment took on much more impact; as did Emi’s suffering.

I found sections of this book extraordinarily well written. Here’s an excerpt from one of the best:

The doorknob squeaks as it turns, and Hana feigns sleep. The door swings open and a stream of light shines on her shut eyelids. She relaxes the muscles in her face and mimics the deep breaths of slumber, forcing her chest to rise and fall in a slow, steady rhythm. The flashlight flicks off. The room falls back into darkness. Footsteps pad inside. The door clicks shut. Hana stops breathing.

A ghostly wind howls through the rafters above their heads. The brothel seems to gasp, and the wind rushes through the window. Hana opens her eyes and stares into the darkness. A black shape stands by the door. For a long time, it doesn’t move. The crickets have stopped chirping, and the mice seem to have frozen midstep. The intruder’s shallow breaths fill the void left by their silence.

He takes a step toward her, and she clutches the blanket tighter. He takes another step and before she can stop herself, she sits up and backs away from him, cowering in the corner.

“Do not be afraid,” he whispers. “It’s me.” (Location 1885)

I could stop writing this review at this point. After reading that passage I’m sure some have clicked off of this blog and are buying the book.

For those still reading, the author included some other exceptional usage of language.

His face hovers above her, cloaked in shadow, and she fills in the black void with the man in her memory. The one who raped her first and called it a kindness, before condemning her to this unimaginable life. Not life, but purgatory in the underworld. (Location 1903)

Sometimes old wounds need to be reopened to let them properly heal…(Location 1344)

People these days seem content to search for happiness in life. That is something her generation never fathomed, that happiness is a basic human right, but now it seems like a possibility. (Location 2817)

While an exceptional story and a difficult book to put down, I did disagree with the author’s approach from the denouement through the ending. While Ms. Bracht crafted a conclusion that fit with the narrative thread, I found it unbelievable. Part of that may stem from the other portions being so realistic by comparison. At any rate, I do acknowledge it as a legitimate artistic choice on the author’s part.

Ms. Bracht brought out the plight of the “comfort women” through White Chrysanthemum. Someone once observed that Japanese war criminals benefited from there being no Simon Wiesenthals in the country following the war. Let’s hope there are more Mary Lynn Brachts to continue illuminating this dark chapter of human history.

Book Review – Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in new chapters, fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages. I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble. (Page 24)

Through Waiting for the Barbarians J. M. Coetzee illuminated the darker side of Empire. The author eloquently showed how the distinction between the savage and the civilized could become blurred when cultures find themselves in conflict. A timeless literary event resulted.

Mr. Coetzee’s novel told the story of an unnamed narrator living in an outpost in the “Empire.” The author never identified the country. He never provided the protagonist’s name; he only identified him as a “magistrate.”

This character possessed a much more realistic view of the society than his countrymen did.

There is a time of year, you know, when the nomads visit us to trade. Well: go to any stall in the market during that time and see who gets short-weighted and cheated and shouted at and bullied. See who is forced to leave his womenfolk behind in the camp for fear they will be insulted by the soldiers. See who lies drunk in the gutter, and see who kicks him where he lies. It is this contempt for the barbarians, contempt which is shown by the meanest ostler or peasant farmer, that I as magistrate have had to contend with for twenty years. How do you eradicate contempt, especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid? (Page 50)

While critical of the way his people treated the barbarians, this narrator also questioned his own behavior towards them. Here’s an excerpt where his “barbarian” girlfriend confronted him about his lack of fidelity.

“You visit other girls,” she whispers. “You think I do not know.”

“I make a peremptory gesture for her to be quiet.

“Do you also treat them like this?” she whispers, and starts to sob.

Though my heart goes out to her, there is nothing I can do. Yet what humiliation for her! She cannot even leave the apartment without tottering and fumbling while she dresses. She is as much a prisoner now as ever before. I pat her hand and sink deeper into gloom. (Page 54)

When he stopped sharing his bed with her, he explained:

She adapts without complaint to the new pattern. I tell myself she submits because of her barbarian upbringing. But what do I know of barbarian upbringings? (Page 54)

Later in the story, he expressed the following thoughts on another one of his “barbarian” women.

Only days since I parted from that other one, and I find her face hardening over in my memory, becoming opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself. Plodding across the salt I catch myself in a moment of astonishment that I could have loved someone from so remote a kingdom. (Page 74)

The author chose to write the book in the present tense. Because of that, it made the narrative much more engaging. It gave the story a sense of immediacy while increasing the tension.

I thought the book very well written and without flaw…until just before the end. I didn’t like the way the author chose to insert Mai as a character. I won’t give away spoilers, but will comment that I found the introduction too abrupt. The character’s presence did contribute to the story’s progression, however.

The narrator made a curious comment towards the book’s conclusion.

Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is every anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian. (Page 102)

That statement made me think this book a veiled reference to the author’s take on his native South Africa at the time of its 1980 publication.

Book Review – Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Aside from the years of his birth and death, Sinclair Lewis’ grave marker reads: “Author of Main Street.” That shows the importance the author placed on this one particular work. In it, he presented a critical portrayal of the provincialism he found in small town American life. An unflattering masterpiece resulted.

Main Street introduced readers to Carol Kennicott. An ambitious woman who worked as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she married a small town doctor, Will Kennicott. She began her new life with him in his home town, a small community called Gopher Prarie; a location the author based on his own birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

I liked how the author established the conflict at the very beginning of the story. Carol harbored the following ambition:

“That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I supposed I’d better become a teacher then, but—I won’t be that kind of teacher. I won’t drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie books. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.” (Location 114)

When introduced to the residents of Carol’s new home, one would certainly have thought this would be a rather easy quest for the young protagonist. After all, the community featured some elite organizations such as the Jolly Seventeen and the Thantaposis club. Under her leadership, they even agreed to present a theatrical show. They would undoubtedly have shared the dream of making Gopher Prarie more sophisticated. Not with Sinclair Lewis writing about it they wouldn’t.

The author compared small town American life to a disease. That’s an interesting metaphor coming from somebody who grew up in one. Here’s an exchange between Carol and Mr. Pollock.

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I shan’t pester you with my dolors.” (Location 2400)

Main Street didn’t include as many examples of sardonic wit as some of Lewis’ other books. It did contain a few good ones, however.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be. (Location 2365)

It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization. (Location 4134)

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly…sometimes. (Location 1136)

And the most memorable:

Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn’t get the Widow Bogart’s permission to enlist, he’d run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he “hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he’d die happy.” Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pouchbauer for being a ‘damn hyphenated German”…This was the younger Pouchbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war. (Location 4216)

I did concur with the usual criticism of Main Street. I found the book very long. At times the author provided excessive details when describing the setting. Had he not done so, the story would have progressed at a better pace.

I also thought Lewis restrained his vitriol in this book. Aside from referencing the “Village Virus” and detailing the variety of characters that moved out of the community, he didn’t deliver too negative an attack on his subject. In Elmer Gantry, he didn’t hold back. I expected a similar tone in Main Street.

It seems ironic that the author of Main Street’s final resting place is in the community he satirized in the book. That’s interesting since he passed away in one of the world’s most popular cities, Rome, Italy. Even death couldn’t prevent Mr. Lewis from succumbing to the Village Virus.


Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano Translated by Barbara White

It seemed ironic, yet fitting, that Jean B. made documentaries about lost explorers. He was, after all, a lost explorer himself. Driven by his desire to discover the reason for an old acquaintance’s death, he embarked on a journey. This quest would transcend time and location. He traveled from present day France back to the era of the German Occupation. He did so alone as his wife feared he would “involve her in an adventure that leads nowhere.” (Page 114)

For those not familiar with Modiano’s work, Honeymoon would serve as a good introduction. It included many themes common to the author’s books. It included the elements of memory, the German Occupation and a protagonist searching for the past. He weaved them together to craft an engaging narrative.

As a young man, Jean B. spent a brief period of time with a couple named Rigauld and Ingrid. He discovered the latter’s death several decades later. At the time, he’d felt disillusioned with his own life. He embarked on a search to discover what happened to these two people.

The book included some superb writing.

She took my arm because of the sloping road. The contact of her arm and shoulder gave me an impression I had never yet had, that of finding myself under someone’s protection. She would be the first person who could help me. I felt lightheaded. All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm, and the pale blue look from time to time—I didn’t know that such things could happen, in life. (Page 24)

Unless the line of life, once it has reached its term, purges itself on all its useless and decorative elements. In which case, all that remains is the essential: the blanks, the silences and the pauses. I finally fell asleep, turning all these serious questions over in my mind. (Page 36)

It does also happen that one evening, because of someone’s attentive gaze, you feel a need to communicate with him not your experience, but quite simply some of the various details connected by an invisible thread, a thread which is in danger of breaking and which is called the course of life. (Page 88)

As one can tell from the passages, Modiano’s writing is pretty deep. It may not suit all readers’ tastes. My version of the book contains 120 pages. It took longer to read than I anticipated. I found myself re-reading numerous passages because of the writing style.

For my personal preference I don’t mind reading works that challenge me. For that reason I enjoyed Honeymoon and would recommend to others.

In 2014, Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Academy cited his work: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Honeymoon serves as a good example.


24 Hour Play Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

How’s this for a challenge? You and a group of your fellow performers arrive at the theatre. Someone hands you a hat. From it you select first a genre, then a prop, during the third round a character, after that a task, and finally a style of delivery. Then you’re given a line that must appear in the play. You and your team then have 24 hours to write an original dramatic work based on the criteria you selected. Once the time runs out, you and your team will perform the play to a live audience. Now who would have the courage to attempt this?

Well, on February 23rd, a select group of 14 brave performers accepted this dare. They chose to participate in Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage’s Sixth Annual 24 Hour Theatre Festival on February 24th. The three teams they assembled treated an audience to superb performances. They followed these shows with some outstanding improv.

The teams presented remarkable writing. All the plays included compelling characters, conflict and plot twists; that quite an achievement for works written less than a day before show time.

The one unifying factor in all the plays included the use of the line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” All the teams worked around the difficulty of applying a statement written in the present tense to their stories.

The team called the Space Cadets opened the evening’s festivities. The troupe consisted of performers Kelly Deeny, Pat Frazer, Tim Kirk, Kathy Smith and Chrissy Wick. They presented an interstellar speed dating play called “What Planet Are You From?” The group interpolated characters from some popular space themed films, a lovelorn woman…and a cat. Even with only 24 hours’ notice to put the show together, they still engaged in some creative casting. It seemed appropriate that the gentleman named Kirk took the lead in a sci-fi story.

The Space Cadets were tasked with writing a science fiction play that included the use of an overhead projector, a character who rapped whenever speaking, and the use of “positions.” The players received instructions to deliver their lines “seductively.”

The Sutter Home Girls comprised the next team to take the stage. Its members included Angel Ezell, Carla Ezell, Tasha Holmes, Nina Law and Eylis Skamarakas. Their “Not Going Home for Christmas” show featured a melodramatic take on a group session at a mental health institution. Their assignment included use of a Christmas tree, one character who only spoke in Disney lyrics, a character who used a hula hoop the entire play and a “sweet” delivery.

I liked how they began and ended their show the same way by lighting the Christmas tree. It also impressed me how, in spite of the play’s brevity, Tasha Holmes even managed to work in a couple of costume changes.

The Chun-Kay team rounded out the evening. Members DJ Hedgepath, Stephen Jackson, Matt Maerten and Darryl Thompson presented “The Transfigured Night” in the mystery/detective genre. To craft this whodunit they received direction to use a foot measurer, include a clown as a character, and to deliver five tongue twisters excitedly.

The latter instruction served as a starting point for this group. Almost every line Mr. Thompson spoke included at least one. Even with the limited rehearsal time, he expressed the dialog clearly and without tripping over his words.

Footlighters 2nd Stage put on a much better triple bill than I expected. All the teams wrote strong scripts. Every performer sounded much more prepared than the rehearsal time allowed.

Then the real ‘improv’ portion of the program commenced. At the beginning of the show, the master of ceremonies, Gaby Affleck, asked audience members to give ideas for ‘quirky’ characters. The players then drew these suggestions from a hat.

First, the performers put on a version of a dating game. The bachelorette, Chrissy Wick, asked questions of three actors who took on the ‘quirky’ roles. Ms. Wick received the task of guessing the character’s description.  Eylis Skamarakas took on the role of a Wookie with laryngitis, Angel Ezell played a pilot who hated to fly, and Kelly Deeny performed as doctor with a case of the giggles.

Some performers as well as some daring audience members participated in the hat game. Individuals put on comical hats and then gave a brief talk as though making a dating video.

The ‘improv’ section concluded with a party scene. DJ Hedgepath played the host tasked with identifying the quirky character each guest played. Stephen Jackson performed as an angry bartender, Tim Kirk acted the role of a child learning to count, and Darryl Thompson acted the role of a disgruntled priest.

I’d also give kudos to Gaby Affleck and Jim Frazer for the professional way they ran the evening’s events.

The performers played eclectic roles extremely well and with very little preparation. That demonstrated the level of talent they all possess. While both funny and entertaining, I’d classify the evening as inspiring above all else. They proved that American ingenuity thrives in the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.


Lecture Review – “Beyond Shipwrecks: Exploring a Sunken Locomotive off the New Jersey Coast” by Dan Leib

The Historical Society of Moorestown treated me to something I’d never experienced in the past. They presented a lecture that included an “opening act.” It delighted me that when I arrived at the Moorestown Library on the evening of February 24th, the organization’s president, Mickey DiCamillo, commenced the evening’s festivities with a preview of the Society’s “Moorestown and the Great War” exhibit. After that, another president, Dan Lieb of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association, discussed two sunken locomotives off the coast of Long Branch. The duo combined for one spectacular double bill. It made for one of “historical” proportions.

A year-and-a-half ago the Historical Society left an audience with a pretty good cliffhanger. When Mr. Lieb last addressed the group on November 16, 2016, he provided an historical overview called “Shipwrecks off NJ Coast.” During that lecture he told of two locomotives his group found underneath the Atlantic Ocean. He said that he’d return and provide the group with more information on them. When I read that Mr. Lieb planned his update this February, I looked forward to hearing him review his findings. When the scheduled date arrived, like a good showman, Mr. Lieb built up even more anticipation. Due to traffic and scheduling conflicts, the keynote speaker arrived 40 minutes late.

Mr. Camillo took advantage of the opportunity by expatiating upon his opening remarks. After introducing the Society’s upcoming “Moorestown and the Great War” exhibit, which will premiere this April, he shared a story with the audience. He described the little known role a Boy Scout troop from Moorestown played in raising money for the war effort.

In order to finance the First World War, the government issued bonds. At first the public delivered a tepid response. The cost of these bonds varied. Buyers could purchase them at different levels. Even with this incentive, the wealthy displayed little interest in procuring them. The government then tried a different tack: it issued a more affordable alternative in the form of war stamps. It enlisted the aid of the Boy Scouts to help sell them.

But, as with many ideas that germinate in Washington, this one came with a bit of a twist. The government stipulated that the stamps could only be sold in areas where the public had already been offered the opportunity to buy bonds. In other words, it only allowed the stamps to be sold to consumers who had already declined to purchase war bonds.

The Boy Scouts went door-to-door offering stamps which, like the bonds, had differing price points. These young men achieved a remarkable record of success. 21 of the 28 scouts in the Moorestown troop received merit badges for selling to more than ten people each. With a goal of $40K in sales, the Moorestown group raised $96K in 1919.

Mr. DiCamillo then displayed the banner of commendation awarded to the scouts. It read:


The Victory

Liberty and Loan

Industrial Honor Emblem

Awarded by the

United States Treasury



Following a brief intermission, Mr. Lieb presented the main lecture: “Beyond Shipwrecks: Exploring a Sunken Locomotive off the New Jersey Coast.” The speaker provided more details regarding the two locomotives discovered off the coast of Long Branch. The topic may be familiar to some readers. Mr. Leib originally discussed the subject on an episode of the History Channel program Deep Sea Detectives in September of 2004.

Each locomotive stands right-side-up and reaches eight feet high off the seabed. They were located in 1984 through the aid of a device called a magnetometer. It identified a big disturbance that covered a small area.

The locomotives are 2-2-2 class. That designation relates to the wheel arrangement on steam locomotives. It meant (according to Wikipedia) that the vehicle contained two leading, two driving and two trailing wheels. Each set fastened on to its own respective axle. Due to this configuration, Mr. Lieb surmised the locomotives were designed for commuter transport.

Mr. Leib described some of the objects he and his crew pulled from the wreckage. They included two bells, two whistles and tallow cups. He described the one bell as “well made.” The whistles contained the engraving of the manufacturer’s name: “H. M. Hooper 3.” The tallow cups measured roughly the same size as small tea cups. Engineers used them to pour lubricant into the locomotive’s gears. Mr. Leib added that these artifacts all contained unique thread patterns.

The speaker educated the group regarding the maritime “arrest” procedure. His organization claimed the locomotives under salvage law. The process is called an “arrest.” The judge granted them custodianship of the site and artifacts. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article notifying the public on 9/19/04. No one came forward to claim ownership. On 1/31/06, the judge granted Mr. Lieb’s group title to the find.

In spite of the amount of information his group uncovered as well as the publicity generated, the source of the locomotives remains unknown. Going forward, Mr. Leib plans to “raise, conserve and interpret” the site’s items.

In keeping with his earlier visit, Mr. Leib once again left the Historical Society of Moorestown with a cliffhanger. Hopefully, he’ll identify the locomotives’ source and return with a definitive answer as to their provenance. This is just a thought, but that topic would make a pretty strong opening act for another one of Mr. DiCamillo’s lectures.

A Special Kind of Empathy

I’ve been deeply moved by the amount of empathy I’ve witnessed lately. Granted, it’s always seemed as though Americans have an immense caring for how their actions impact those around them; but lately, it’s been special. In fact I had a most extraordinary encounter with it this week.

The South Jersey area experienced several days of rainfall. I noticed my windshield wiper blades beginning to streak. It wasn’t so bad during the day, but during the evenings it could look like someone smeared Vaseline on the window. As it drizzled one afternoon, I figured it a good time to replace them.

Much like the empathy I’ve witnessed lately, my windshield wiper blades are also “special.” In fact, they’re so unique I can only purchase them through the dealership where I bought my car. As it’s in an out-of-the-way area, I procured a spare pair when I took the car in for service during the spring of last year.

I learned from past experience. The first time I needed windshield wipers I went to the auto parts store in my neighborhood; the one I drive by on the way home. Windshield wiper blades are a very common part. Every car has them. I can get them anywhere any time I want, I figured. Wouldn’t you know it? The auto parts store—one that’s part of a national chain–didn’t carry this “special” brand. As I didn’t want to make special trips anymore, I made sure I’d always have a spare set at home whenever I needed them.

To paraphrase Robert Burns: the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. When I installed the windshield wipers, they were incorrect. The person who pulled them gave me two passenger side wiper blades: not one for the driver’s side and one for the passenger’s side. As I happened to be off from work the day this occurred, I opted to go out of my way to the dealership to pick-up the right wiper blade.

When I got the wiper blade, I installed it myself to make sure it was the correct one. I measured it to confirm that I had been correct. The one wiper blade the dealership sold me last year was the wrong one.

I felt a bit distraught. I had to drive twenty minutes out of my way during rush hour traffic in the rain. All this because one of the dealership’s employees failed to do his/her job. Was that really fair to me? After all, as a customer, the money I spend there goes to cover salaries. Wasn’t this person technically my employee, too? I decided to discuss the situation with one of the managers there.

I asked to see whoever was in charge. The general manager had already left for the day, so they put me in touch with a gentleman I’ll call ‘Jerry.’ I explained what happened.

Jerry made no effort to restrain his overwhelming concern regarding my inconvenience. His eyes glazed over with great interest. I thought I detected a sigh of alarm escape from his lips. When I finished explaining what happened, he leaned back. The overflow of emotion prohibited him from even making eye contact with me. It was like he felt so embarrassed by the employee’s inability to read numbers off a box that he couldn’t bring himself to even make eye contact with me.

After a moment that must have seemed never ending to him, he mustered the courage to make amends for this humiliating oversight. “I apologize. People make mistakes. I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out here. Hopefully, we got it right this time.”

I have to admit, at first I felt a bit disappointed. After all, I had to go totally out of my way to rectify his employee’s “mistake.” I had to use gas I paid for as well as time that I can never recover. Then I reflected on Jerry’s words: “People make mistakes.”

I realized that does happen. How true. And Jerry was “sorry.” Then I thought about the empathy Jerry showed: both to me and his inept employee. Just maybe, I thought, I need to be more like Jerry.

Based on his profound understanding of human error, I’m sure Jerry applies that philosophy to other facets of his life. If either he or someone he loved were injured because a mechanic installed the wrong brakes, he’d chalk that one up to “a mistake.” That’s why pencils have erasers. After all, the part number of the brakes may have been similar. Anyone could’ve gotten it wrong. I know he’d bring the car back to the same mechanic with the understanding that “hopefully” (s)he would get it right on the second try.

I’m also very confident that if a heart surgeon used the wrong suture on either him or someone he loved, Jerry would just call that a “learning experience.” “Suture looks like suture,” I’m sure he’d say. “Anyone could’ve made a mistake pulling it.” Of course, the expression “the surgeon said he was sorry, so everything’s okay” would’ve featured prominently in any subsequent eulogy.

I’ve convinced with metaphysical certainty that if Jerry’s employer shorted him $30 on his paycheck, he would’ve forgone financial remuneration in favor of a sincere, “Sorry” from the department that handles payroll. I have no right to complain about the $30 in parts and gas his employee’s mistake cost me. I received an apology. I accept that with the same gratitude Jerry would have in the situation I described.

Jerry’s empathy deeply touched me. It was truly “special.” I’m sure he and his coworkers will show the same understanding should I decide to go car shopping at one of his competitors next time. After all, if I make the wrong decision, it’s only a “mistake” that costs his company a couple thousand dollars in profits.

Sorry, Jerry.