The Willow Grove proves an absorbing and entertaining work in progress 

Engrossing New Play

Eight readers and 27 attendees were present for the free, staged reading of the 2009 Todd McNerney National Playwriting contest runner-up, The Willow Grove, by Walter Thinnes. (The contest is funded by an anonymous donation to the College of Charleston, and the reading is a part of the prize.) Set in a small Southern town in the late 1990s, The Willow Grove is a family drama with a mysterious twist. It tells the haunting story of a family drawn together by the recent death of their father, a stubborn man so used to having his way that he's sticking around in the afterlife to see his funeral handled in the manner he wished.

Howard Logan was the local sheriff for four decades, and he continues to bark out his orders from the great beyond to his daughter Margaret — the only character on stage who can hear and interact with him. As neighbors and family arrive, Margaret, who has been her ailing father's caretaker for the last several years, makes the arrangements to have her father buried that night under a grove of old willow trees on the family property.

This may seem like a logical last wish from a dying man, but from the beginning Margaret seems like a woman with a secret, and playwright Walter Thinnes subtly maintains the suspense. As family members reminisce about Howard, we come to understand the old Sheriff better — but the plot thickens when the audience learns that the willow grove is the last place on earth the old man wished to be buried. And it turns out that sweet, aging Margaret is actually bent on revenge.

The character of Margaret really shines, no doubt in part to the skillful reading of College of Charleston alumni and adjunct faculty member Glenda Byars. But the dialogue from Howard comes across as repetitive and wooden. It's a difficult challenge to make the conversations between father and daughter work without the whole concept seeming contrived, and the balance hasn't quite been struck yet. However, sibling rivalry creates appropriate humor, and as Margaret begins to tell her story, the secret unravels into a darker story of murder, mistaken identity, and tragic racism. Though the play ends on a rather eerie note that feels quite different than the world in which the play originated, it felt worthwhile and absorbing, and the setting and family dynamic echoes the smash hit play August: Osage County.

This was playwright Walter Thinne's first script after spending years as an actor and stage manager, and it will be interesting to see if the play gets the opportunity to blossom on stage.


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