The play that I am writing about, Corner’s Grove by Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin as directed by Gemma Kaneko at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, describes itself as a “reverent nod to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.” Thus, there’s probably a lot to say about this play through comparing and contrasting it to Wilder’s classic. However, seeing as I have a terrible memory for plays I have read years ago and never seen and the only things I really remember about Our Town are that it involves people named George and Emily and David Cromer once directed a production of it with real cooking bacon, I shall refrain. Not to fret—I will, of course, not refrain from bacon.
Corner’s Grove is a play that exists in dualities: it manages to be both quiet and loud, serious and farcical, speedy and lengthy. It follows the lives of a bunch of young people from the town of Corner’s Grove, not-so-subtly based on the town of Mountain View, California, where the playwright hails from. In the play’s two hours, which sometimes zips by and sometimes tends to drag, we witness a bevy of experiences: gender crises, alcoholism, marriage, funerals, shifting friendships, gentrification, love, leaving home, hating home, loving home. And, of course, losing Whitney Houston, a motif that feels like a joke upon its introduction but grows to be something more meaningful.
Garvin’s play can feel insular at times. Understandably so, it is located in such a specific place and deals with very particular lived experiences so that it does this interesting thing where it manages to be both exceedingly general and exceedingly specific. This sometimes works in the piece's favor, as it is a bit of a delight to be watching what you think is a comedy, replete with goofy jokes and Teens Doing Dumb Things and shamelessly parading a clump of metal chairs masquerading as a car across a black box stage, suddenly peel away into seriousness. The characters work this way as well: Wally (Adin Lenahan), Emily’s (Brittany Allen, in a fine performance) sibling, appears to us first as a bit of a one-note flamboyant stock character, but as the play progresses layers and complications emerge that are both delightfully substantial and substantially sad. It’s also not afraid to be morally grey at times—it’s not every day that you see friends getting drunk at the funeral of their friend who died of alcoholism.
Doing plays in festivals is not always easy; one is faced with the often-cumbersome tasks of setting up and breaking down scenic elements in small amounts of time, runtime restrictions, and being just one name in a sea of other shows. Here, we have a play with a rather large cast and robust runtime trying to squeeze into a simple black box. Most of the time, this works. Kaneko has smartly managed to stage the play’s multiple scenes and settings as simply as possible, so that one gets the gist of what is going on without mourning the loss of tangible props such as champagne glasses. There are times, however, that the action feels a bit too tightly-squeezed. Many of the scenes featuring dialogue between characters sitting on the ground were difficult to see, even from the second row. However, Barbara Begley’s costume designs are a particular delight, easily compensating for the often-bare stage.
Overall, Corner’s Grove is a show with a lot of characters, a lot of ideas, and most importantly, a lot of heart. Watching Garvin acting in her own work as her version of Our Town’s stage manager resulted in experiencing her quite literally looking over her collaborators with genuine tenderness and left me with the reassurance that she truly cares about this piece, which is a rarer treat to find than you’d expect.
Corner’s Grove can be seen as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, Friday July 10 at 8:30pm and Saturday July 11 at 9pm at The Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue. Tickets are $18 and benefit WIN (Women In Need) NYC.
Written by Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin; directed by Gemma Kaneko; featuring Alton Alburo, Brittany Allen, Hollis Beck, William Berger-Bailey, Gabriel Carli-Jones, Max Carpenter, Kelly Colburn, Tallie Gabriel, Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin, Michael Greehan, Par Juneja, Adin Lenahan, Stephanie Malove, William Vaughn, and Ariel Seidman-Wright. Costume design by Barbara Begley, sound design by Kyle Rogers, lighting design by Caroline Kittredge Faustine, scenic design by Carolyn Emery, stage management by Jaye Hunt.