Photo: Liz Lauren

The Leading Ladies Of The King’s Speech At National Theatre On Relationships, Power And Class

Here to fuel our generation’s obsession with British royalty, National Theatre is bringing British-American playwright David Seidler’s The King’s Speech to DC from February 11-16. If you’ve seen the 2010 Oscar-winning film, and not the play it was based on, you know the story of a shy, speech-stuttering King George VI (Bertie) who becomes a leader of a nation on the brink of the World War after his father passes and his older brother is abdicated.

While the film has a heavy focus on the relationship between Bertie and his unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue, the play is sure to shine a light on the power of the three main female characters who we don’t see enough of in the movie. We chatted with Maggie Lacey (Elizabeth, Duchess of York), Elizabeth Ledo (Myrtle Logue) and Tiffany Scott (Wallis Simpson) about their characters’ strong presence in the play, and their take on the importance of the relationships that unfold in The King’s Speech at DC’s National Theatre.

OT: Tell us about some general differences between the 2010 film directed by Tom Hooper and David Seidler’s theater version of The King’s Speech.
Elizabeth Ledo: The play is very different than the film in many ways, one being some of the characters in the film are either more or less flushed out than in the play. I think it’s two different experiences for audiences, which is thrilling. If you’re more of a history buff, the play is a little more exciting. 
Tiffany Scott: The screenwriter David [Seidler] made some changes to the script [more recently] than what you would have seen in the film version. He’s still actively involved in the process, and we’re kind of focusing on the human side and love scene between Wallis and Edward. She shows up quite a bit as a powerful player in the story of the constitutional crisis that led to the abdication. They’re working on flushing her out more. She shows up every now and then to cause some trouble.

OT: That’s great that you still get to actively engage with the original playwright. Any fun facts or tidbits that you’ve learned from him?
EL: When we worked on this in Chicago, he spent a couple days with us. He wrote Myrtle very differently than what was historically accurate. She was happy to be in London. She enjoyed some of the perks that came [with] Lionel’s profession. She had some fun. He needed to create dramatic tension and create this idea that she desperately wanted to go back to Australia. It’s not historically real, and we’re tweaking the story for dramatic effect. 

OT: How do the characters of  Elizabeth, Myrtle and Wallis differ from each other and how are they the same?
Maggie Lacey: All three have different backstories, regardless of rank or country of origin. They’re all in love with a man who is challenging for them to support, but who also supports their desires in the relationship. 
EL: The audience gets a little surprise from how much they end up meeting these threads in the play, too. The relationship between Lionel and Bertie is so fabulous to watch and rewarding, and I think that David has given a voice to these three women in a way that’s kind of a surprise to the audience. They’re going to find the importance that the women play. Maggie and I have a quick uncomfortable moment together between Myrtle and Elizabeth, then Wallis and Elizabeth have this equally awkward fascinating exchange in the top of that queue. 

OT: Has it been a learning experience to interact with such a large number of important roles in the play?
ML: It’s been helpful for me to look at the other women’s journeys in the play and learn more about the queen’s. Myrtle for instance, her and the queen are obviously of a different class. It’s a really rich dichotomy there. Wallis, when you [Tiffany] spoke in the rehearsal hall the other day, it was so exciting to hear because it was an American voice coming through. I like the women’s stories and they may not be at the forefront of the play at first glance, but these other actresses have helped me understand my own job. 

OT: What do you love most about your characters and what do you wish they did more of or had more of?
TS: I’m really digging the fiery energy that Americans bring into this world, as Maggie mentions, she’s [Wallis is] the one American voice, so I’m trying to find ways she might move around stage differently than everyone else and have her own voice, which is what this play is about.
EL: Myrtle has a heart of gold, she’s kind of salt-of-the-earth. A grounded woman. Lionel and Myrtle’s scenes are fast, generally a page long, and we’re trying to get a lot accomplished in them, so the the challenge of that is a good challenge and I embrace it, though there’s a couple scenes where I’d want them just a little more flushed out. 
ML: There’s something about the character [Elizabeth] that I feel is specifically British and wry that I am really interested in. It’s not in our blood as Americans to be loyal, so I’m trying to explore the culture and be as authentic as I can. The conciseness of the language seems to support the concise sort of way that they have of talking and collecting their thoughts and at times is wry and right to the point, which I like a lot. 

OT: What are some of the themes in the play that you think are relevant to today’s modern world?
ML: Michael Wilson, our director, talked about the people in this play acting not just for themselves, acting for people connected to them and society as a whole, and that is relevant today. There’s these moments in the play where you’ll know the time is very volatile and we’re on the cusp of the second world war. Hitler is rising to power and fascism, and all this political unrest is happening. These individuals in the U.K. are trying to stay on the right side of history; and that’s all around us right now. History’s never too far from the present.

OT: What are your thoughts on the score behind the play? How big of an impact does the music have on moving the story along?
ML: It’s very cinematic, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling. The actors are fully encapsulated by the score. I think the set design elements are cinematic in many ways. So you really feel like right away you get drawn in. There’s no way you don’t know that you’re on something that’s a bit epic because it’s just so operatic. It feels like being on a film set at times, and it moves so fast. You go on this wonderful ride as the audience. The design elements on this play are top, top, top notch. He put together quite an incredible group of artists.

OT: Is there anything special that the audience should be on the lookout for?
ML: I wish I had more time in costume, which may sound superficial but it’s not. The costumes are done by David Ward, and he’s a genius. I have all these beautiful dresses that I get to wear for maybe 30 seconds each, so I wish I could show off the clothes for a little bit longer. If you come to see the play, look quickly. Pure artistry is on display.

See The King’s Speech runs at National Theatre from February 11-16. Visit www.thenationaldc.com for times and ticket prices.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com

Photo: courtesy of Dram & Grain

Dram & Grain Makes Happy Hour Debut

If the fictional high school chemistry teacher Walter White from AMC’s Breaking Bad put his talents toward making cocktails instead of methamphetamine, he’d be Andy Bixby. At a cocktail tasting hosted at Dram & Grain in Adams Morgan, Bixby threw around terms like “spherification” to describe how he trapped applewood-smoked cucumber juice in a bubble using calcium chloride. He often spoke of cocktail “molarity” to illustrate the balance of his craft beverages. Bigsby even gets dehydrators and pressure cookers involved when he’s experimenting with new tinctures, spirits and syrups for the cocktail menu. 

I nodded like I knew what he was talking about, recalling chemistry as my worst subject in high school. Had high school chemistry class been directed toward creating fun drinks using the periodic table of elements, maybe I would have paid more attention. 

Bixby is the creative director of beverage at Dram & Grain, the speakeasy-style bar that originated in the secluded basement of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon. He is joined by wine director and cocktail collaborator Morgan Kirchner. After a 15-month hiatus, Dram now lives in a much larger, but still intimate, candlelit space down the street under the team’s newest venture, The Imperial. The bar and restaurant opened in November at the corner of 18th street and Florida avenue. 

Dram & Grain is the bar to go to to find a cocktail you couldn’t possibly conceive of alone and have literally never had in your life. I’m not sure where else you could come across a drink that combines ingredients like miso, cucumber juice and ham fat “pearls.” Or what Bixby calls the “anti-Blood Mary,” a light and clean crowd favorite that includes toasted mustard seed and tomato water garnished with a strawberry salt-covered cherry tomato. 

The former umami-forward cocktail with ham fat beads is called Pearls Before Swine and was inspired by a dish Kirchner had in Copenhagen. 

“My background is in culinary arts so taking those things and putting them into a cocktail glass is like, my obsession,” Kirchner says. Its base is tamaro, one of the three house-made base ingredients. 

Tamaro pulls flavors from tamari, dark miso, shoyu, lemongrass and ginger. Base potions anisette and baked citrus amaro join tamaro in the foreground of Dram’s cocktail menu. “I wanted to show others the power of a quarter of an ounce,” Bixby explains. “I wanted to make the base the star of the show. Showcase the versatility of how that ingredient works.” 

In fact, the cocktail menu is organized by base ingredient, followed by the varying drinks that can be made using it. Currently, all three bases get their chance to shine in three different cocktails each. The menu is designed to show guests how tamaro’s complex flavor profile, for example, works just as well in a vodka-forward martini drink as it does in a tiki-inspired rum one.

Before you make a choice and order a drink, however, the Dram & Grain experience begins on arrival. Every guest is greeted with a “Welcome Punch of the Day.” The current iteration carbonated on draft is a blend of Jamaican rum, PX sherry, black walnut liqueur, red verjus and wine. The rotating draft cocktail serves as a little preview of what imaginative concoctions are to come.

Though such rare and intricate cocktails come at $13-$18 a pop (which isn’t so steep considering the time, science and trial-and-error Bixby and Kirchner put into them), these drinkable creations are about to get a lot more accessible: the bar just launched a happy hour for the very first time.   

Starting this week Monday through Friday between 5-7:30 p.m., you can snag one of those detailed, technical-forward out-of-the-box cocktails for $11.

Shareable snacks of note on the happy hour menu include Carroll’s Clam Dip with crème fraîche, horseradish and sea salt lavash and five other delectable dishes

Dram & Grain offers both reservation and open seating sections, and both tasting menu and a la carte options. The cocktail menu will change every couple of months but remain centered around the three house bases. Reservations can be made through Resy and there is a cozy 24-seat fireplace room available for private events. The bar is open Wednesday through Saturday starting at 5 p.m. For more information, click here.

Dram & Grain: 2001 18th St. NW, DC; 202-299-0334; www.dramandgrain.com

Maggie O'Neill // Photo: courtesy of MoKi Media

Celebrate Galentine’s Day in DC with These Five Fetes of Friendship

I think it’s fair to say that the day before Valentine’s has taken over our collective consciousness as an iconic cultural moment to celebrate the beauty, power and fun of female friendships. That’s right, I’m talking about the holiday pioneered by Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope. As the hardworking fictional heroine said, the celebration involves leaving your partner at home and “kicking it, breakfast style.” Seeing as this year’s Galentine’s Day falls on a weekday, you may not be able to sneak out of the office to snack on Leslie’s favorite diner waffles, but you can still enjoy the company of your best friends at these amazing Galentine’s Day events throughout the city this week.

Thursday, February 13

Galentine’s Day at Urbana
Looking for a low-key event where you and your friends can relax and catch up over great pizza and cocktails? Urbana offers a $10 pizza and prosecco combo, plus $8 cocktails, made with women-owned Republic Restorative spirits, making this event a great way to enjoy your night out with friends without breaking the bank. If you RSVP on Eventbrite, you and your squad will be greeted by a free glass of sparkling rose at the event, plus all attendees will enjoy a DJ playing a girl power playlist, a photobooth to snap your favorite memories from the night and the knowledge that your reveling makes a difference, as Urbana will be donating a portion of the night’s proceeds to No Kid Hungry to aid in their mission of eradicating childhood hunger. 5-10 p.m. Free to attend. 2121 P St. NW, DC; www.urbanadc.com

Maggie O’Neill’s Galentine’s Party
For friend groups brimming with creative energy, Maggie O’Neill hosts a free soiree celebrating friendship at her airy new studio at The Wharf. Arrive ready to participate in painting opportunities, see what the future holds for you and your girls with a fortune teller, snack on light bites and drinks and more. If you’re looking to update your wardrobe and truly treat yourself, you can shop accessories and clothes from the beautiful selections of Ella-Rue and Los Gitanos Vintage on site. 6-9 p.m. Free to attend with RSVP; email [email protected]. 998 Maine Ave. SW, DC; www.maggieo.com

Second Annual Galentine’s Day Gathering at Astro Lab Brewing
If your gratitude for your friends is spilling over into a sudden desire to give back to your community, Astro Lab’s Galentine’s Day Gathering is the place for you and your crew. The Maryland brewery has teamed up with Silver Spring Cares so you can participate in interactive activities that directly benefit Koiner Farm, Shepherds Table, Small Things Matter and more local organizations. If you work up an appetite while simultaneously working to benefit your community, they’ll have snacks on hand for you. Plus, you can grab one of Astro Lab’s delicious craft brews to sip on while you’re there. 7 p.m. Tickets $20. 8216 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD; www.astrolabbrewing.com

Third Annual Galentine’s Day by Dio Wine Bar
This third-annual celebration at H Street’s natural wine bar offers Galentine’s Day celebrators a little bit of everything. You’ll get four mini workshops lead by the talent behind local women-owned businesses, a wine float with house-made ice cream (if you’re not sold by that alone we’re not sure what else you need), a mini cocktail, and access to Dio’s carefully curated women lead and women owned wine list, special for this Galentine’s celebration. Plus, you and your gal pals will leave with a goodie bag with delicious treats to enjoy later in the spirit of enjoying good food and good company. 6:30-9 p.m. Tickets $35. 904 H St. NE, DC; www.diowinebar.com

Friday, February 14 – Saturday, February 15

Valentine’s Day at Lapop
If your squad would rather celebrate love in all its forms on Friday, head to Lapop in Adams Morgan for a Valentine’s Day party that comes with a hint of sass. The spot will be serving an anti-Valentine’s Day punch, only available on the Friday, February 14, making it the perfect spot to hide out from the lovebirds and complain about the perils of modern dating. Dance through the night with the sounds of DJ Jack Doja from 7 p.m. – 1 a.m., and when you need a break, look through a series of Valentine’s Day art by local artists, also on display in the space. The art show and DJ are free to attend. 1847 Columbia Rd. NW, DC; www.lapopdc.com

Tove Lo At Fillmore Silver Spring

Crafting a raw, confessional brand of pop shaped by her love of grunge as well as the pristine sounds of her Swedish homeland, Tove Lo is an award-winning performer and Grammy-nominated songwriter. She played Fillmore Silver Spring on February 7. Photos: K. Gabrielle Photography 

Photo: Rey Lopez

Tonari Comes To Chinatown, Blending The Comforts Of Japanese And Italian Cuisine

The Daikaya Group is known for its quartet of ramen shops, each bringing the flavors and culture of Japan straight to DC. The team’s latest venture, Tonari, takes a different turn, swapping noodle soups and dumplings for crispy pan pizzas and twirls of pasta. Known as “wafu” cuisine, the blending of Italian and Japanese food is unlike anything else coming out of DC kitchens. 

“Whenever we do a restaurant, one of the big reasons that we choose the cuisine is because it’s something we want to eat and we can’t find it here,” says Daisuke Utagawa, one of the restaurant’s partners. 

Both Tonari’s name and concept were inspired by its Chinatown location. “Tonari” translates to “next door,” and the focus on pizza and pasta echoes the building’s past history as Graffiatto, chef Mike Isabella’s Italian eatery. The restaurant is set to open tonight. 

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TONARI IS NOW OPEN FOR DINNER! Celebrated Daikaya Group partners Yama Jewayni, Katsuya Fukushima, and Daisuke Utagawa are thrilled to announce the opening of their fifth restaurant in the District – Tonari – meaning ‘next door’ or ‘neighbor’. We are open today, Friday, February 7th, at 5pm for dinner service, and we will serve as the first restaurant in Washington, D.C. to showcase Japanese-style or ‘Wafu’ pasta and pizza. Lunch service and a dessert tasting experience on the 2nd floor within Tonari is slated to launch in the coming weeks. Read more about our opening in @eater_dc at the link on our profile, and scroll through for photos of some of our new menu offerings! Many thanks to @gabehiatt, @rlopez809 (photographer), and the Eater DC team for the feature exclusive! #tonaridc

A post shared by Tonari DC (@tonaridc) on

“In a sense, we really wanted to repurpose and recycle the restaurant,” says partner Yama Jewayni.

Pairing Japanese and Italian cuisine may be an unfamiliar style to many Americans, but it’s a well-established cuisine in Japan, explains executive chef and partner Katsuya Fukushima.

The wafu style reportedly originated in 1953 at Kabenoana, a small Tokyo restaurant serving affordable plates of pasta. Working with his customers, the chef began creating dishes that incorporated Japanese ingredients like cod roe and sea urchin. 

Tonari’s menu and vibe – down to the ingredients in the kitchen –  draw heavily on this tradition, including sourcing custom noodles and pizza dough directly from Sapporo, and embracing design elements like a moss garden and “horigotatsu” seating on the second floor. Dining at Tonari is a bit more refined than the Daikaya Groups other locations, with a pace that is more laid back than the rapid churn of a ramen counter. 

The opening pasta menu includes a half-dozen dishes ($12-$18) with vegetarian, seafood and meat options. Cooked al dente, the pastas retain a firm yet chewy texture, allowing the flavor of the noodle to come through with each bite. For something fancier, go with the briny and buttery uni pasta folded together with soy, mirin, sake, kombu dashi and seaweed. There’s also the shirasu, a more adventurous plate of tagliatelle topped with baby sardines and a simple sauce of garlic, olive oil and red pepper. And don’t write off the kitchen’s Napolitan offering, a homey sausage, peppers and onions spaghetti dish with a ketchup and Tabasco sauce. 

In addition to pasta, Tonari bakes up a few different pizzas ($14-$16) with a unique 100 percent Hokkaido flour that produces a bready, air texture and a crispy crust. The best of the bunch is the white clam variation, a nod to New Haven-style eating. If red sauce is the move, Tonari offers takes on classic Hawaiian and pepperoni pies. The pizzas are generously topped and filling, with one easily being enough to share along with a couple of other dishes. If dinner leaves you itching for something sweet, the tiramisu and chocolate budino are both satisfying.

The bar sticks mostly to classic cocktails and Italian wines, with a few twists. Fans of vermouth and amaro can enjoy neat pours before or after eating, or taste them in one of the signature drinks. The Reverse Martini, for example, mixes a high ratio of vermouth with vodka, Maraschino liqueur and bitters. Whiskey drinkers will like the Smoky Manhattan, made with smoked amaro and rye. 

Tonari truly does feel different than anything else around town. The wafu combination of Italian and Japanese flavors and cultures seems odd at first, but it all comes together. Subtle at times and bold elsewhere – it’s an experience worth checking out for yourself.

For more information, click here.

Tonari: 707 6th St. NW, DC; www.facebook.com/tonaridc

Marrow Fat Beans at Nina May // Photo: courtesy of Nina May

Dynamic Duos: Vermilion & Nina May 

Marcona Almond Tart at Vermilion

The room is dimly lit by candles and blurred from rich, red wine coursing through my veins. Replete with a meal of suckling pig and rabbit sausage, a tart with a generous scoop of ice cream melting daintily across the golden-brown top appears. 

I inhale the warm scents of vanilla, amplified with a hearty pinch of Maldon salt. My spoon descends into a gooey, textured interior and within seconds, the plate is bare. 

Surely it is only so good because I’m drunk? Because I had just had a spectacular meal? Because I’m in good company? To investigate, I return.

Month after month, on date nights, solo dinners, and even an occasion where I arrived in my pajamas just to eat the tart before bed.

It becomes more than just a dessert. For me, it epitomizes joy that glows and comforts simultaneously. 

Vermilion’s Marcona Almond Tart is both an ode to tradition and a celebration of simplicity.

“It’s really [Chef Joshua Abrams’] baby,” informs Executive Chef Thomas Cardarelli. “We wanted to do a really good nut tart. Josh was researching classic recipes. We had never found an almond tart like this one.”

After three recipe experiments, the tart presented itself onto the dinner menu.

“People come back for this dessert. People come here for lunch and beg for it because it’s not on our lunch menu. People order one and then immediately order another,” Cardarelli shares, incredulously. “We thought it was good but the reaction from our diners exceeded expectations.”

The tart embodies a pâte brisée (a standard butter-based pastry dough) and filling. Rather than preparing the recipe with sliced almonds—a perfectly respectable option as proved by Chez Panisse with their famous almond tart—Vermilion uses “the queen of almonds,” the Marcona almond from Spain. 

A sweeter option than the classic almond variety, the Marcona has a buttery quality that lends well to baking. The unassuming vanilla ice cream that melts seductively onto the tart is enriched with Madagascar vanilla beans. Needless to say, each batch is prepared daily and baked to order. My enthusiastic help aside, Vermilion sells up to 30 tarts a night. 

1120 King St., Alexandria, VA; www.vermilionrestaurant.com

Stewed Marrow Fat Beans with Oyster Root at Nina May

I hate beans. Nothing personal, old bean—not everything can be loved by everyone. When I must, I tolerate you. More often, I eat around you or avoid you completely. 

Avoidance proves difficult when a ceramic dish of plump beans in a creamy sauce is set at the table; part of the second course of Nina May’s rather generous “Chef’s Choice” menu (priced at $39 with a fluid number of courses). 

I politely take and taste a tablespoon of the dish – then another. And another. Suddenly, I find you…charming. 

Perhaps my precaution towards beans lies in the textural element. Whether baked or canned, they’re disturbingly mushy. I haven’t come across many fresh beans on menus. Chef Colin McClimans of Nina May thought the same. 

“The whole point of being a seasonal restaurant was to keep the menu fresh,” McClimans says of Nina May’s promise to source ingredients from within 150 miles and change the menu to reflect what’s available. “When I was doing R&D, fresh beans were available. We were calling ourselves a New American restaurant and I wanted to do something I perceived as super American for the menu.”

This dish is a Chef McClimans’ play on baked beans.

“I wanted the same flavor profiles—smoky and creamy—but not like baked beans at all.”

The dish was featured on the opening menu and stayed for a couple of weeks, until McClimans’ supply of fresh beans from Moon Valley Farm ceased due to seasonality.

“When I took the beans off the menu, I thought there was going to be a riot.”

Finally, McClimans partnered with Path Valley Farms to purchase their supply of shelled beans they had dried during the season. Every day, the beans are rehydrated with water for 24 hours, after which they’re accented with butternut squash, oyster root mushrooms, goat cheese, and a rutabaga puree. Together, it makes the best darned baked bean dish I would have never thought to try on my own.

“That’s the point of our chef’s choice menu,” McClimans continues. “I wanted to put things on there that you might normally ignore. Me, personally, I would never order a vegetarian dish when there’s other stuff on the menu. So, to put something that people wouldn’t be as excited about and to then have it be their favorite dish is the whole point. It allows us to say, ‘Trust me, you’re going to enjoy.’”

Well, Chef. You’ve certainly earned my trust. 

1337 11th Street NW, DC; www.ninamaydc.com

Your Smith At Songbyrd

Your Smith (Caroline Smith) brought her In Between Plans tour to DC on January 30 for a sold out show at Songbyrd. The Minneapolis native released her first EP, Bad Habit in August 2018 followed by her second EP release, Wild Wild Woman in September 2019. Inspired by the “Minneapolis Sound,” Smith’s style of music is a blend of funk, pop and R&B. In 2018, Caroline changed her name to Your Smith, a re-branding of her identity as a laid-back, risk-taking performer. Photos: K. Gabrielle Photography

Photo: courtesy of WRAIR

WRAIR’s Clinical Trials Helping To Cure the World

Clinical trials are necessary for discovering new treatments for diseases, as well as finding new ways to detect, diagnose and decrease the chance of developing a disease. 

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), located in Silver Spring, Maryland, regularly studies what are often referred to as, “neglected tropical diseases,” or diseases that cause significant illness among the world’s poorest populations as well as pose a health threat for U.S. military members traveling overseas. These include malaria, dengue, yellow fever, Ebola, leishmaniasis, as well as certain types of viral hepatitis, infectious diarrheas and meningitis, among others.

Like all clinical research in the U.S., studies at the WRAIR are conducted on human volunteers under very strict safety regulations to test if new drugs, vaccines or devices are safe and effective – and everything is first tested extensively in labs and preclinical safety testing, before testing is ever allowed on people. 

Lt. Col. Melinda Hamer, MD, an emergency medical doctor by training, serves as director of WRAIR’s Clinical Trials Center (CTC) and has spent a significant portion of her career researching infectious diseases.

After stints with Johns Hopkins Emergency Medicine and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, she was asked to join the WRAIR CTC in 2017.

“This is a unique place to be and there are really few places like it in the world,” she says. “In addition to discovering and manufacturing new vaccines and drugs, we are able to conduct clinical research to assess candidates that have the potential to combat some of the world’s most deadly pathogens. We like to say we address diseases from Anthrax to Zika.”

Although the U.S. Army and the WRAIR have a long history of conducting clinical trials, the CTC was formally established in 1992 to conduct these highly-regulated clinical trials to evaluate the safety of the vaccine products and learn if they actually work to fight these diseases.

“Our center has been involved in a number  of different key milestones and breakthroughs in terms of new vaccines and new treatments,” Hamer says. “For example, there’s a disease called Japanese encephalitis virus, and our center did several significant clinical trials that helped pave the way for a product to be licensed to prevent this disease.”

That was important for U.S. soldiers who deploy to the Southeast Asia region, and the vaccine is also commercially available to help prevent the disease for those who live in areas where the virus is endemic – particularly children, who are more susceptible to death or permanent neurological problems from malaria.  

Other examples include helping with several anti-malaria drugs, and all of the different ones used by U.S. soldiers today were touched in some way by researchers at WRAIR.

“More recently, with the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15, we were selected as the first site in the world to test the Ebola vaccine and that is now being used to stem the tide of the current outbreak,” Hamer says. “It’s the one that is being used in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it appears to prevent folks from getting Ebola and spreading this terrible disease.”

In her role as director, Hamer is responsible for the safety of everyone who receives test vaccines and ensuring they are appropriate for participating in the clinical trials, as well as doing safety assessments during the trial. She leads a team of about two dozen clinical research professionals including three doctors and eight research coordinators, and she notes that success is really a team effort. 

Hamer emphasizes that there is a tremendous amount of planning that goes on just to start a clinical trial.

“We are constantly having meetings with study sponsors and all the different people on staff who are participating in the trial – different clinical coordinators, experts making sure we are adhering to all the regulations, and then plotting out what phases we should focus on and what grant or funding proposals we should apply for next,” she says. “It’s really cool work and I’m here with a lot of really amazing scientists.”

Once a study is over, the data needs to be reported to the FDA and study findings published. It takes a lot of research and several different studies in human beings for a new vaccine or drug to be approved by the FDA and licensed. It can often take 10 years or more.

At any one time, 5-10 studies are being worked on at the WRAIR Clinical Trials Center, and some new ones are in the works for 2020. The CTC plans to be recruiting for these studies soon.

“For those interested, they should know that although there is always some risk associated with testing new products, each study is vetted thoroughly to see how we can make the study as safe as possible. There are quite a few essential safety studies in the laboratory, and in non-clinical safety evaluations that go on before any of these products are even thought about for testing in human beings,” Hamer says. “There are very strict regulations and product review that both the Army and the FDA require.” 

The CTC is housed in what looks like a typical doctor’s office. There’s a waiting room, three exam rooms and labs where things are being studied. 

For those who volunteer, Hamer explains the initial visit or “screening” visit will have study personnel collecting information about a volunteer’s medical history and any medications or specific criteria that will determine if one is eligible to participate in a particular study. Typically a brief physical exam is also involved. If volunteers are eligible for the study, a vaccination or medication dosing visit will generally be the first official study visit.  At that visit volunteers will be briefly checked by a doctor to make sure they are doing ok and are healthy and to confirm their continued willingness to participate, and if so, they will get the first shot or dose of medication. After they receive the dose, someone will watch them for thirty to sixty minutes, and then they will be reassessed before allowed to leave. 

Throughout the study, volunteers may be asked to come in for evaluations including blood tests so researchers can look at the volunteer’s immune response, or antibodies, to make sure they are producing the right response to potential infection, and to ensure there are no abnormalities are going on. Antibodies, as many may know, are Y-shaped proteins in the blood to help stop intruders – such as bacteria and viruses – from harming the body. Other safety checks, such as regular blood tests and questions about any doctor visits or medication changes, are also performed at the study visits to ensure that volunteers have had no problems or concerns associated with any of the research products.

Volunteers are compensated since it requires a  commitment to participate, and those who want to become part of it also need to be serious about their involvement. Although volunteers have the right to leave a study at any time, Hamer says it’s a little bit like a job in that people will have scheduled times they need to come in and they may have other obligations associated with it.

Studies can last anywhere from 2-3 months to 18 months or longer, but the majority fall in the 10-month to a year range. A recent study involved eight total visits by participants, but some require more. 

“We get a lot of repeat volunteers. Once they understand what it is and what we do, many will come back and even invite family and friends to participate,” Hamer says. “We see people in our clinic starting at 6 a.m., so a lot of folks will just come before work and we can accommodate work schedules.”

Hamer is proud of her work and believes that the research is extremely important, and is thankful for all the scientists and volunteers who are involved. 

“It’s incredible to think about that we’re coming up with potential solutions for some of the world’s most challenging and terrible diseases,” she says.  

For more information on current studies or upcoming ones seeing volunteers, visit here.

Mirian Katrib and Joseph Kamal // Photo:: Margot Schulman

Arena Stage’s A Thousand Splendid Suns Depicts Family Dynamics Under Normalized Violence

To commemorate their 70th season, Arena Stage has pledged to “[lead] the way in gender equity and racial diversity by reflecting those values both on and off the stage.” In keeping with this commitment, A Thousand Splendid Suns, based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hossein, premiered in the Mead Center for American Theater on January 17, shedding light on gender oppression in the Middle East. 

Adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by Carey Perloff, A Thousand Splendid Suns recounts the journey of an unlikely friendship between two Afghan women in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The play runs through March 1. 

The scene is set with pedestrians crossing a desert configured by a flamboyant orange backdrop, exquisite silhouette cutouts forming mountains and clouds fashioned out of metal wiring. Perfectly designed by Ken MacDonald, the set artistically speaks to the country’s landlocked mountainous landscape. 

As a boy runs on stage with a kite (a nod to the novelist’s first piece of fiction, The Kite Runner), the story commences with beautiful traditional Islamic music comprised of horns and echoing chants, filling the space with an air of sincerity.

Dawning a long voyage as the sun peaks, a family is found on what could be easily mistaken for a picnic but is soon realized to be a pile of items to be sorted and discarded in preparation for their migration.

The family’s forthcoming voyage is quickly halted as a bomb erupts with blinding lights shining on stage. In complete disarray, chaos ensues as villagers frantically move around the stage. 

Lying unconscious amidst the rubble, the protagonist is “rescued” by her male neighbor. Upon awakening, she discovers she is orphaned and is swiftly tricked into marrying a married man, who promises a sanctuary in a land unfavorable to women.

Covering the span of approximately two decades, where regimes and cultures shift in a war-torn city, A Thousand Splendid Suns nestles comfortably in a normalized violence-absorbed community. As tensions grow due to continuous bombing, lessening resources and looting induced upheaval, family dynamics are severely tested.

Elevating the authenticity of this narrative is the dynamic performance of the family. Comprised of actors who identify as Middle Eastern,  including, Iranian-American, Afghan-American and Indian-American, as Perloff explained, the emotions emoted resonate immensely, strengthening the much-needed messaging. 

Mirian Katrib (Laila) offers a sublime performance as a naively optimistic adolescent girl turned radical mother, courageously opposing the oppression of her husband. As she matures and recedes to adolescent years, reinforced by shifting lighting effects, Katrib distinctly embodies the character with each scene. 

Supporting the character of Laila is the stoic Mariam, played by Hend Ayoub. Initially disapproving of their nuptials, fearing the second-class status she will assume, Mariam grows tolerant and even loving as she and Laila raise Laila’s children. 

Playing opposite of Laila and Mariam is the boisterous Rasheed, played by Haysa Kadri. Kadri successfully personifies the stereotypical oppressor, using gaslighting techniques to manipulate and control his wives. Unable to cope with his dilapidating surroundings, he insights fear with each manic episode, creating a contentious environment where only brotherhood and servitude can survive. 

What Perloff has done is successfully facilitate a space to unpack social-norms of the Middle East. Aware of the potential risk of teetering towards or perpetuating a message of Islamophobia, A Thousand Splendid Suns cares to offer balance, introducing multiple male figures who encourage the educational development of their female counterparts and offspring. 

Filled with unfathomable realities, needing to be depicted more frequently, A Thousand Splendid Suns is an extraordinary account of perseverance and joy in a time of darkness and hopelessness. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns is showing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater until March 1. Tickets are $41-$95 and can be purchased online here.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth Ave. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Greensky Bluegrass At The Anthem

After 18 years together, up to 175 shows per year, nearly 1,000 different setlists, six studio albums, and a litany of live releases, Greensky Bluegrass embodies more than just music for members Anders Beck [dobro], Michael Arlen Bont [banjo], Dave Bruzza [guitar], Mike Devol [upright bass], and Paul Hoffman [Mandolin]. The recently continued its legacy at The Anthem on February 1. Photos: Mark Raker Photography