Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bardstown Offers Varied Experiences

Anyone who has attended the Kentucky Derby knows how emotional the playing of the state song, "My Old Kentucky Home," can be as the thoroughbreds parade before the grandstand.
While visiting Bardstown, one of the oldest towns in the state, I had a chance to visit the historic home thought to have been the inspiration for Stephen Foster's touching musical anthem.
Built by the Rowan family in 1812, the federal-style home aptly called Federal Hill, also sports the title "My Old Kentucky Home."
Stephen Foster Statue - My Old Kentucky Home State Park Bardstown Ky.JPGAlong with prominent visitors like Henry Clay and the Marquis de Lafayette, legend has it that composer Stephen Foster, a cousin of the Rowans, visited Federal Hill in March 1852, an event that eventually gave birth to the renowned state song.
While some scholars doubt the authenticity of the claim, the mansion is the centerpiece of My Old Kentucky State Park, which surrounds it.
Visitors to the park are able to tour the mansion with a guide dressed in period attire -- 50 percent of the furnishings were once owned by the Rowans and the guides are knowledgeable about the history of the plantation.
To add even more pleasure to a visit, be sure to stroll the beautiful landscaped grounds around the house.
For a totally different experience, stop in at the Jailer’s Inn at 111 W. Stephen Foster Boulevard. You can take a tour of the old jail, built in two sections, the first in 1819 and an 1874 addition, surrounded by intimidatingly tall stone walls.

The Stephen Foster Statue at My Old Kentucky
Home State Park in Bardstown, Ky., honors
the great American songwriter.
(Photo credit Bill Rockwell)

The cells are open for touring and memorabilia (hoods from the last hanging, hand cuffs and a soap gun made by one of the inmates) and historic photos of life "back when" line the walls.
Understandably, the place has an inherent gloom, and partially because several prisoners were executed here, some visitors report haunting stories of ghostly experiences.

The jail actually held prisoners until 1987, at that time the state’s oldest operating prison facility. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the jail actually serves as a bed and breakfast inn and guests can spend the night in one of the jail cells, complete with bunk beds, a waterbed and black and white decor.
The remaining five guest rooms are attractively furnished, so much so you probably won’t be reminded where you are. (Two rooms have double Jacuzzis, but one has the original iron bars at the entrance).
Owner Paul McCoy is knowledgeable about the area and the history of the jail. In the summer and clement weather, he or his innkeeper serve overnight guests breakfast outside in the courtyard surrounded by the high stone walls.
Whether an overnight guest or day visitor, be sure to have your photo taken while posing with your head and hands in the stocks outside in front of the main entrance. Phone 502-348-5551 or
While stately Wickland, the circa 1825 mansion once home to three state governors, is high on Bardstown’s must-see list, there's even more reason to visit what manager and local historian Dixie Hibbs calls "the best example of Georgian architecture in Kentucky."
Friday evenings at 7:30, two young mediums, twin sisters Michael and Katie Wilhite lead 90-minute "paranormal tours" that start with a prayer in the parlor, then proceed down to the basement, haunt of a nasty spirit named Benjamin Ford. The mediums are sensitive enough to communicate with other spirits as well, such as Waleta, a large Black woman once responsible for doing all the mansion cooking.
Along the way, tour takers get to try their hands with divining rods and ask the spirits questions via the mediums.
"It’s not a scary tour, it’s a research tour," said Hibbs. "As an historian, it’s interesting to learn about the daily lives of people who lived here long ago." (502-507-0808)
If You’re Going . . .
For more information on Bardstown attractions, phone 800-638-4877 or
For a place to dine, Kurtz Restaurant, 418 E Stephen Foster Blvd., has been in business since 1937 and owned by three generations of the same family. Skillet fried chicken, Kentucky country ham, homemade soups and casseroles are some of the community favorites, but the homemade cobblers, pies, biscuit pudding and skillet fried cornbread have become signature dishes. Phone 502-348-8964.
Guest Entering Jailer Inn Bardstown Ky.JPG
Tours of the old jail, built in two sections,the first in 1819 and
an 1874 addition, are available. (Photo credit Bill Rockwell)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Death and the Maiden" - A Somber Look at Justice in the Face of Tyranny

Sadism and Schubert, justice and vendetta, madness and healing, violence and rapprochement.
In his moral thriller, "Death and the Maiden," Chilean playwright, Ariel Dorfman, certainly employs enough in the way of concepts to awaken the thinking cap and keep it occupied for a good 95 minutes.
Adrienne Wehr and Ken Bolden 
Set in an unnamed, presumably Hispanic, country just after the forces of democracy overthrow its totalitarian dictatorship, the play opens just as progressive attorney, Gerardo Escobar, gets word that he’s included in a special commission whose objective is to investigate the previous regime’s crimes against humanity. What makes the position significant to him on a personal level is that his wife, Paulina, was imprisoned, tortured and raped by his country’s security forces. Even after her release fifteen years previously, she still suffers so much from the scars of her ordeal that she’s unable to reclaim her life.
After an odd and somewhat unlikely circumstance (following a flat tire, her husband is helped by a stranger passing by named Miranda who later visits the couple in their seaside home), Paulina begins to suspect that the good Samaritan is none other than the doctor who raped and tortured her and perpetrated these heinous crimes while nonchalantly playing the music to Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden,." Hence the play’s title.
During a sleep over, Paulina, convinced he’s her man, pistol whips Miranda, then ties him to a chair in an attempt to inflict a bit of suffering on her torturer but, more importantly, to get him to confess to his crimes.
As Paulina, Adrienne Wehr deftly straddles the line between unleashing her anger and intense desire for revenge and keeping her wits about her enough to see her mission through to the end. As a government commission lawyer, Mark D. Staley has the equally tenuous task of upholding the principles of fair play (and a fair trial) for all while simultaneously keeping the lid on his seething hatred of the man who presumably ruined his wife’s life.
What makes the play so mentally and emotionally infuriating is the way Dorfman keeps his audience guessing about the truth of Paulina’s accusations. Is she perhaps psychologically unbalanced and the victim of her own delusions? Is Miranda such a polished liar that he can cast substantial doubts about his culpability?
As the accused hostage, credit Ken Bolden for putting forth a plausible defense and convincing demeanor, one that keeps the audience on the fence as to his guilt or innocence.
Near the end of this tautly drawn drama, I was able to draw my own conclusions, but thanks to some deft writing by Dorfman, others might leave the theater with a different notion of Miranda’s guilt or innocence.
Written in 1990, "Death and the Maiden" remains vitally topical in view of the string of recent revolutionary collapses of dictatorial regimes in Africa and the Middle East and the subsequent endeavors to redress past wrongs. With its latest production, the Off the Wall Theater in Washington continues to bring provocative, relevant and stimulating work to its stage.