Friday, January 31, 2014

The Lesser Known Great Plantation Along the Ashley River Down Highway 61

Just a short drive down Highway 61 from Summerville are three of Charleston's most famous plantations--Middleton Place, Magnolia and Drayton Hall. Born from the life that was Charleston past, each has a history and enchantment unique to itself and each visited by thousands of tourists and locals every year. But likely unknown by most, there is a fourth plantation unpretentiously hidden behind the mossy covered trees common to this stretch of the Lowcountry south of the Ashley River. I was totally unaware of the plantations existence, until I happened upon it while reading stories about Lowcountry folklore.

Two avenues led to the haunting estate--one of live oaks and the other with skyline hedges of Southern Magnolias. The gardens were extraordinary. There was a walk in the garden called the Alphabet Walk because the name of each tree that bordered it began with a different letter of the alphabet. Along such magical paths, under the plantation's ancient trees along Ashley River Road, wandered Edgar Allen Poe when he lived in Charleston and one finds just such mystical woodlands in his haunting tales.

The plantation has been known by three different names during its over three hundred years of history. Its oldest name was "Greenville." Later, it was named after the wife of one of the owner's and called "Sarah Place." After a fire destroyed the original mansion, the Pringle's built a new mansion and decided another name was more appropriate. The new name was inspired by a thousand year old oak on the estate located at the center of a large meadow overlooking the Ashley River. The pastoral scene reminded the owners of a property in England with a similar setting--its name, Runnymede.

Later, Charles C. Pinckney purchased Runnymede from the Pringle's son, William Bull. Pinckney mined phosphate from the property's naturally occurring deposits. In 1865, the mansion built by the Pringles suffered the same fate as the original. It was destroyed by a fire; a fire set by Union troops--likely the same troops that burned Middleton Place.

Pinckney rebuilt the home a third time. It was rumored to be one of the only country style Victorian homes in the Lowcountry. In 1995, it was purchased by the Whitfield's. The grim specter of fire revisited Runnymede again in 2002 and destroyed the home built by Pinckney. All that's left of the mansion is a partial outline of the home's perimeter, a two story chimney from the kitchen house, and a storied history interwoven with the folklore and superstitions of plantation living as big as its onetime 1,457 acres.

One story tells of an African/American burial ground located deep within Runnymede's thick centuries old forests and an age old custom of placing personal items owned by the deceased in life on their graves--a custom with African roots. Items like plates, saucers, and drinking glasses if it was a woman or tools if it was a man, but not excluding items like a favorite chair. The removal of any of these types of personal items from the graves of a dead person would result in consequences too terrible to imagine implicating swift retribution from the offended spirit. A belief implicitly held by hundreds of people living in the Lowcountry of South Carolina--including those who lived on Runnymede Plantation.

The author who wrote about the 40 year old story chillingly connected a mischievous prank with a tragic plane crash that occurred two miles outside of a North Carolina airport--a flight with a Charleston origin. The prank involved the removal of a personal item from one of the graves in the old burial ground deep within the forests of Runnymede Plantation.

Runnymede Plantation is located between Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation. Unlike its more popular counterparts, it is not open to the public. But it is open to scheduled weddings, private events, and concerts. It doesn't have the beautifully terraced landscape of Middleton Place, the magical gardens of Magnolia, and the masterfully preserved architecture of Drayton Hall. But it does have a thick, untouched canopy of century old trees, numerous ponds and creeks, an unobstructed view of the Ashley River, remnants of a plantation, and a unique place in Charleston's ancient and colorful plantation history.

Click on Runnymede Plantation today to see an image of the Plantation.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Flowertown Players Open Their Grounbreaking Performance Of Rent-A Portrayal Of Love And Loss

The Flowertown Players sailed into unfamiliar waters Friday night with the opening of their
presentation of the rock musical Rent and navigated their ship successfully into the Port of Phenomenal.

Whether you agree or disagree with the moral implications of the play, it dives into the harsh and heartbreaking realities a group of struggling-to-find their-way-in-life young musicians and artists are forced to deal with while living in New York City's Lower East Side during the thriving days of Alphabet City and the Bohemian lifestyle. The harsh reality of struggling with the lack of money just to pay rent and the heartbreaking reality of finding love in the face of the AIDS virus. It was a world Johnathan Larson, writer of music and lyrics, was familiar with and that is what it is all about.

Congratulations to the director(Mark Gorman) who, for this ground breaking step by the Flowertown Players, pulled together from the available pool of talented local actors and actresses a cast that realistically mirrored the raw passion of the original play's characters and presented a vocally powerful performance.

The complicated choreography of the play, from my point of view, was executed flawlessly, especially during the scene of the party at the Life Café - my favorite. I liked the bare bones look of the background and the different colors from the lighting accentuated the atmosphere on stage.

The live musical ensemble, which I believe to be the foundation of a musical like this, was burdened with a heavy responsibility. If they make a mistake, the whole flow of the play could be in jeopardy. But they did not miss a beat and greatly attributed in a large way to the play's successful opening night.

I first met Cody Smith back when he played the vicious villain in Wait Until Dark and his acting impressed me. Then I saw him play Danny in Grease where I experienced his vocal skills for the first time and I thought he was great. But as the struggling musician trying to find that one inspirational song, Cody(Roger) blew the roof off the house with his explosive vocals. Andrew Turnball as Mark was equally strong and harmonized well with Cody. Equal to the task was Giulia Marie Dalbec(Mimi), Michelle Smith(Maureen), Jason Marion(hauntingly believable as Angel), Kevin J. Thorn(Collins), Alexandria Rashanko(Joanne), and Tyler Reed(Benny).

There were many highlights to speak of and in the end drew a resounding standing ovation. Here are a few of my picks. The tender but hesitant exchange between Roger and Mimi in Light My Candle was beautifully portrayed by Guilia Marie and Cody. You could feel the intensity of the emotions build as the scene progressed toward the climatic reluctant rejection. Guilia Marie additionally executed a superb dance routine when the beautiful Mimi attempted to seduce Roger in Out Tonight. Michelle drew a huge applause from the audience with her humorous and provocative performance of Over the Moon. The entire cast was riotously outstanding when all the friends gathered at the tables to celebrate their Bohemian lifestyle.

Commendations to JC Conway, Heather Pallay and staff for boldly going where you hadn't gone before. You have set the bar high with this one. It will be a tough act to follow, but I have confidence you will meet the challenge.

Purchase tickets for the next performances.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Exceptionally North Of Excellent-S.N.O.B.

It is often said, "Nothing is perfect." We say this in keeping ourselves well grounded and in maintaining a reasonable balance concerning our expectations of things and rightly so, because speaking from a human standpoint, perfection is an unattainable standard. But despite our misgiving to label anything perfect, we do use the word to describe exceptional experiences, from a human standpoint. Therefore, I have no trepidation in using perfection to describe my experience earlier this week in Charleston, which I will now explain in detail.

With confirmation and camera in hand, we made the short trek from the Vendue Range parking garage to East Bay Street. It was relatively quiet. I have seen it busier. Not a surprise, it was a Monday night. By now the Old Market crowd had dispersed and all the galleries and small shops were closed. Like us, fellow patrons were making their way to the various restaurants located in this part of the French Quarter, which all appeared busy, seeing Charleston's Restaurant Week was already underway. After having spent some browsing time shopping on Charleston's popular King Street earlier, we were cutting it close - reservation was set for 6:15.

Our destination was the eclectic restaurant Slightly North of Broad or better known by the acronym S.N.O.B., which was proudly displayed on various objects outside its double-door entrance. Once inside, we checked in at the hostess's desk, confirmed our reservations, and were shown to our seating arrangements - a small, intimate table for two by a window and a view of the kitchen. A significant component of this restaurant is a large, brick archway with a viewable kitchen just beyond. Even though I could see the kitchen staff busy at work from where I was seated, it was not distracting.

The restaurant's elegant, bright-red menu was placed before us. Our server introduced herself. Upon noticing my partner was wearing black, Natalie offered to exchange the white napkin on the table for a black napkin, so my partner wouldn't get any lint on her clothes. The thoughtful gesture did not go unnoticed by me. She allowed us a few moments to peruse the extensive wine list and cocktail offerings. When I saw Charleston Cocktail on the list, a drink containing Sweet Tea Vodka from Firefly Distillery, my mind was made up. Menu selections were next.

Since it was Restaurant Week, we had a choice of an appetizer, entree, and desert for $30. As I looked the selections over, a few terms were unfamiliar to me and required some explanation. I asked numerous questions of Natalie. Most of my queries centered around the appetizers, which featured Italian dishes - such as Beef Carpaccio and Heirloom Tomato Crostini, to name two. She patiently and knowledgeably fielded each question with a smile. As a result of her assistance, I comfortably chose the Crostini - house made focaccia, butter bean puree, and grana padano. My partner selected Charleston Crab Soup - blue crab meat, sherry, and chives.

Next, focus was on the entrees, particularly the Pan Seared Tilefish. "What is a tilefish?" I asked. She explained, "It is similar to grouper in taste except a bit sweeter." I accepted the explanation. The Pan Seared Tilefish would be served with Anson Mills polenta, braised artichokes, tomato broth, and olive tapenade. My partner chose the Grilled Sirloin with Joseph Fields Farm red potatoes, broccoli, port wine reduction, and herb compound butter. Anson Mills and Joseph Fields Farm are Lowcountry growers. As for the desserts, they contained no Italian terms, needing no further explanation. Wholly Cow Mud Pie Ice Cream is simple, straightforward English.

We sipped our drinks, munched on the delicious complimentary bread offerings, and engaged in idle small talk while we waited for our food. Our server thoughtfully delivered two slices of crostini for me to sample as a preview. Shortly thereafter, the appetizers arrived. My favorite part of the Heirloom Tomato Crostini was the butter bean puree. Its texture reminded me somewhat of guacamole. Once we finished off the appetizers, the main entrees arrived in a stacked arrangement. Covered with the braised artichokes and olive tapenade, the Pan Seared Tilefish was laid on top of the polenta and floated in the tomato broth. It was a pleasant partnership of flavors. The tomato broth sweetened the tilefish and supporting polenta. It was heavenly.

As I now sit before my laptop preparing this review, reflecting back on my visit, I sincerely can not think of a single glitch in the pitch. My S.N.O.B. experience was a flawless marriage of food and service. The presentation of the various dishes from appetizer to dessert was both visually appealing and timely.

Natalie, our server, was very personable and attentive, checking in often through the meals progression. She was helpful in assisting us with making informed decisions pertaining to our selections. As the meal transitioned from appetizer to entree to dessert, she was  conscientious concerning the smallest of details, from proper positioning of silverware to keeping the table cleared of emptied plates and spent utensils.

I give Natalie and S.N.O.B. the highest marks. They will be a tough act to follow and a standard I will be using in judging other Charleston restaurants on food and service. Slightly North of Broad is located at 192 E Bay Street.

After further research, I discovered tilefish is sometimes known as "the clown of the sea."

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Specter Of Change Arrives In Summerville Once Again-A Welcomed Visit

Change has been a persuasive specter in Summerville, appearing at times in different forms and making its presence felt over the passing years. Transformation, metamorphosis, development, modification, transition, contraction, refinement, destruction and reconstruction are just some of its hauntings. Sometimes visitations have been spontaneous and sometimes coerced, sometimes unwanted and sometimes welcomed.

This specter of change has returned to Summerville recently, but this visitation has been coerced. And if your powers of observation are acute, you would have perceived its presence downtown, taking the form of reconstruction.

Our community theater is getting a long needed facelift with a new marquee as the primary feature. This will be the third marquee since the theater was first built around 1935. The second marquee change took place during its much needed renovation when the theater became the home for the Flowertown Players around 1976. The new marquee will be a return to the look and feel of the original with some slight differences.

As part of the change, the brick flower boxes have been removed and needed repairs to the masonry are being addressed. If everything goes according to plan, the new marquee will make its debut within the next two weeks - just in time for the Flowertown Players next production of the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama winning musical Rent.

Rent, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, is based loosely on Giacomo Puccini's opera "La bohème." The off-Broadway show debuted exactly 100 years after Puccini's opera of 1896. On Broadway, it had a 12-year run of 5,123 performances and became the ninth longest-running Broadway show at the time. The production grossed over $280 million.

With their presentation of Rent, the Flowertown Players will be venturing into uncharted waters - it deals in adult rated material. The setting of the play is in New York City's Lower East Side during the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, the artsy avant-garde neighborhood of marginalized artists, writers, journalists, musicians, and actors of Manhattan. Bohemianism was the practice of an unconventional lifestyle and Bohemians were associated with anti-establishment political or social viewpoints, which often were expressed by artists, writers, journalists, musicians, and actors through free love, frugality, and voluntary poverty.

This production of Rent follows a year in the life of a group of these impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive in that Lower East Side environment of New York City - falling in love, finding their voice and living for today. The cast consists of 20 of our locally dedicated actors.

On my recent visit to the James F. Dean Theatre, I got a preview of the near-completed set and a peek at Mark Gorman, Artistic Director of South of Broadway Theatre Company, and JC Conway working through procedures involved in setting the final mix of the scripts lighting cues. The play will open Friday, January 17th. I look forward to seeing some of you then and everyone else stay-tuned for my after-opening night review.