Thornton Wilder once wrote a play called Our Town about the fictional American town of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire and the inhabitants of this small town. Broken down into three acts, Our Town, led by a narrator called the Stage Manager, follows the lives of the Webbs and the Gibbs over a period of years. This play is an American classic. The slice of life look at Everytown, USA has a special place in our hearts. In Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin’s Corners Grove, Garvin transports the Webbs and Gibbs and friends to a fictional Bay Area town to peek into the struggles of home and the loss of Whitney Houston.
In Corners Grove, Garvin pays homage to Wilder while simultaneously throwing away the heart and beauty of the classic. Written in three long acts, a narrator takes the audience on a journey through the recent past where townies struggle to grow up, get out, and find happiness. The Webbs and Gibbs are still neighbors but their identities are new. George Gibb is the friend-zoned pal of Emily Webb. Emily’s brother Wally is closeted and rearing to escape. Rebecca Gibb is the town slut and faghag of Wally. The core four have an abundance of classmates and pals including cousin Julia, her best friend lesbian Melissa, her ex and Stanford genius Stacy, and town bad boys Howie and Joe. With so many characters on hand, Garvin tries to give them each their moment to shine and intertwine, but there’s only so much you can jam pack in an endless two-hour intermissionless play. With the appeal and intrigue of Our Town, Garvin explores the accessible theme of home and what it means to our generation. Though the sentiment is there, the clarity is not. Blending parody with heart blurred the intentions of the piece, losing the credibility of the source material. Regardless of style, Garvin ran into problems structurally and with character arcs. The majority of the characters had stand out moments but none were fully fleshed out. Elements and traits were touched upon but were pushed to the backburner to make way for the next round of characters. Corner’s Grove felt closer to highlights of a first season of a television series than a fully realized piece of theater. It appeared as if the core four were to be the most fleshed out but that was soon abandoned.
The one character though that did have the most dynamic journey and fullest story was Wally. This was proven in the strong performance by Adin Lenahan. Lenahan was sassy and fun to start but when he had his Prior Walter moment in Act III, that’s when he broke out, offering an emotive performance. While she was primarily subjected to the background until the third act, Stephanie Malove was delightful as Julia. Malove has a strong onstage presence and a charming disposition. The highlight scene of the play was the proposal between Julia and Par Juneja’s Luke. Malove and Juneja provided rapid-fire dialogue that culminated in a beautifully tender moment. Equally sequestered to the minor role was the majorly capable Kelly Colburn as Melissa. Colburn was able to find dimensionality in Melissa, bringing subtle nuances to the role. Max Carpenter as Joe broed out wonderfully and Gabriel Carli-Jones find hope as Manny when they were on stage, making the audience to beg for more to their stories. Beyond that, there were many disconnected performances. There was such hope in Brittany K. Allen’s Emily but was sadly held back by Michael Greehan’s George. Greehan seemed to be living in his own play, lacking chemistry with Allen. Scribe Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin as the poorly titled Stage Bitch looked lost, fumbling over her own words. Garvin looked frazzled and unsure as the narrator, though she was captivating in her moments of stillness watching the action she created.
To bring Corner’s Grove to life, director Gemma Kaneko took the stripped down approach, a staple to Our Town. Using this device was fine but the scenic elements were a complete travesty and sadly altered the experience. The set by Carolyn Emery seemed more like a pull from the Paradise Factory storage room rather than a cohesive design. Emery and Kaneko used stacks of audience chairs, two ratty folding tables, and two ladders to tell the story. While the concept was keen, it seemed as if the company forgot to bring their scenic elements to work. In the tight space, Kaneko brought little variety to her staging. Additionally, Kaneko had her company mime props until some props randomly appeared. The inconsistency drew focus from the moment, trying to discover why some props were more important than others. The lighting design by Caroline Faustine was modest, bringing some wonderful color to some of the monologue moments.
Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin and dramaturg A.P. Andrews should continue to bring their strengths together to shrink the show and discover the direction Corner’s Grove ultimately wants to go in. The piece has the power to hit home but as it stands now, there’s a lot of fluff that diminishes the quality. With inspiration stemming from a beloved play, there’s a lot going for Garvin and her work.