Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Unpacking in P'Town
New Conservatory Theatre Center

Also see Patrick's recent review of Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad

Matt Weimer, Stephen Kanaski, Awele,
and Desiree Rogers

Photo by Lois Tema
Discovering one's true self is a challenge all humans face. Learning what makes us happy and fulfilled can be an uphill battle even when our desires seem to generally match what is the "norm" for our families, our cultures, and our backgrounds. Claiming one's true identity and living honestly is even harder when one's inner life seems somehow out of sync with the broader world.

The characters who inhabit Jewell Gomez's new play, Unpacking in P'Town, currently in a world premiere production at New Conservatory Theatre Center's Walker Theatre, are all struggling–to one degree or another–with identity. Young Anando (Stephen Kanaski), a Provincetown local, wants to go to art school, while his father hopes he will take over the family bakery. The rest of the characters are summer guests; though each has their own issues, they are united by having been vaudeville performers. Buster (ShawnJ West) was a "hoofer," specializing in tap and soft shoe. His partner Scottie (Matt Weimer) was a singer. Lydia (Awele) and Minty (Desiree Rogers) were also dancers.

But things are changing in 1959, when Unpacking in P'Town takes place. The Civil Rights Act and Stonewall are still a few years away, and the vaudeville circuit is fading away. On the cusp of all this change, the quartet come together–as they have for many summers–to relax, enjoy the seaside, occasionally to dance, but always to drink, as Scottie keeps the cocktails flowing, regardless of the time of day.

Of the group, Scottie is the least comfortable with his identity. Lydia, Minty and Buster, all being persons of color, have lived in a world where a vital aspect of their identity is ever-visible. But Scottie–despite his fey mannerisms–has the chance to pass as a person who more closely aligns with '50s-era norms. At least that's what he has planned when his father comes to visit from Scotland, asking Lydia if she will be his beard during his father's time in Provincetown.

Although the characters are nicely drawn, and Gomez's dialogue is naturalistic, and specific to each character, the overall dramatic arc travels a somewhat wobbly path. The addition of a ghost inhabiting the attic of one of the two seaside cottages (nicely realized by set designer Thomas O'Brien) adds little to the action. It feels as though Ms. Kepish (not certain of the spelling, as she lacks a mention in the program and is represented only as a disc of shifting light atop one of the cottages) served no more true dramatic purpose than any of the other props or sound effects.

The cast seem nicely in tune with each other, and director Kimberly Ridgeway keeps the action flowing nicely. ShawnJ West brings the most passion and gravitas to his role, serving as a stable gravitational force around which the other characters orbit. Even though it's Scottie who seems to have the most issues, it's West's Buster we end up rooting for. There's no dialogue coach listed in the credits, but Weimer could certainly use one. Before his character was revealed as Scottish, I couldn't tell whether Scottie was German or Norwegian, so loose and inaccurate was his accent.

Ultimately, I'd rather have spent time with characters like these in real life than in this relatively lifeless new play.

Unpacking in P'Town runs through March 31, 2024, at New Conservatory Theatre Center's Walker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit or call 415-861-8972.