Penelope Gioris and Kelly AuCoin in Worm Day
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Penelope Gioris and Kelly AuCoin in Worm Day
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
One wonders what a play entitled Worm Day might be about. One fears it might be a relatively literal title. One's fear is confirmed by the show itself, scripted by Matthew Calhoun and directed by Tom Herman.

The play introduces us to Kate, whose mother was so cold and abusive that Kate has taken to burying her affection for others in an obsession with, and passion for, worms. Kate's is not a scientific passion, or even a psychologically complex or imaginative one; she keeps earthworms in her kitchen, in a small wooden box containing compost, simply because they provide her some kind of comfort. She also renames herself Kate Wormser out of her dedication to the thoughtless little creatures.

Played by Penelope Gioris, Kate is an adult whose manner is childlike, even for a kindergarten teacher. She is relentlessly wide-eyed, displaying the kind of exaggerated wonderment that quickly becomes annoying. She meets a rather promising beau, Tom (Kelly AuCoin), after she steals his bait from him (guess what kind!) while he is fishing. Tom is a fledgling professor of Russian language and literature at Brown and his description of how he chose his field is one of the best moments of the production, its best actor doing nice work with Calhoun's strongest writing. Had the rest of the piece shown that kind of sophistication and clarity, Worm Day would have been a worthwhile show saddled with (hopefully) the year's worst title. Instead, the title feels all too appropriate.

Outside Providence, where Kate and Tom eventually marry and live, Worm Day introduces us to Marc (Will Swenson) and Erica (Brooke Fulton), who work at a public radio station in San Francisco that airs Marc's show about books entitled (yep) "Bookworms." We learn of Marc's principled refusal to change the show's title just as Kate Wormser refuses to change her last name when marrying Tom, and of Marc's repugnance for interviewing star authors because he is just too good a person for that. Erica, a radio producer and a rigid woman who makes lists of everything she has to do, has been charged with firing Marc but convinces him to interview a few John Updike types (horrors!) in order to stay on the air.

Eventually, Erica and Marc fall for each other and marry. Then Kate, who listens to Marc's show from her increasingly unhappy home in Providence, learns that she has become a published author. That's right: Her husband has rescued from the garbage the stories she has written and thrown away, sending them to his brother, who edits a paper called The Peoria Agitator. In those pages, Kate has unwittingly had a column for some time. She's even been syndicated and received a book offer thanks to Tom's good-little-elf forgery. Now, Kate is sort of horrified by this; she never meant for anyone to like her work (or her, apparently) for any reason. One of the funniest lines of the play comes when Tom asks her, "Do you know what keeps me from killing you?" We erupt in relieved laughter that someone onstage is as exasperated with the show's protagonist as we are.

Thereafter, Worm Day becomes a diluted stage version of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie Sleepless in Seattle, as Tom and Kate's marriage comes apart and Marc's bond with Erica frays as well. (Another funnier-than-intended line is Tom's accusation of Kate: "I think you love those worms more than you love me!") As Kate's book becomes more popular, she meets her radio beau Marc on the inevitable book tour and the heavens light up with twinkling approval of their affection for each other.

Will Swenson and Penelope Gioris
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Will Swenson and Penelope Gioris
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The play has some valid points to make about compromise, devotion, and derangement, but they aren't well realized. Kelly AuCoin as Tom delivers a nice performance under tough circumstances, with Will Swenson's Marc a runner-up. Director Herman does decent work with sappy material but the play leaves us scratching our heads in several spots, especially insofar as the female characters are concerned. Still, Gioris's Kate and her mother Emily (Maeve McGuire) share a particularly painful scene together in which the utter iciness of their relationship is rendered with some skill.

One feels sorry for the energetic Gigi Jhong, whose comic timing and sparkling presence are a bright spot as San Francisco waitress Julie Kim, a silly ethnic foil for Worm Day's even sillier white people. Kim is supposed to achieve dignity when Marc grudgingly shows respect for her after insulting her on national radio, but she already has the good, solid perspective on relationships that wise foreign folk like her tend to have in plays like this.

As grad student Millie, Tonya Cornelisse is ditzy and fun; but the essential goofiness of the play is not the right tone for the weighty issues it takes on, including fidelity, the effects of parental abuse, and the nature of love. Maybe Worm Day does what Calhoun intended it to do, but it would be nice if he could learn to convey his themes in a more grown-up fashion. This feels too much like a first play from a writer who has actually penned nearly a dozen.