Review: `Towle’s Hill’


The Marsh is delving into theater of a whole new vintage these days.

Best known as a breeding ground for great solo shows, The Marsh usually pairs enterprising writer/performers with directors who know the ins and outs of one-person shows.

For one of its latest projects, The Marsh followed that model but with a twist. The family-owned Sonoma winery Gundlach Bundschu was about to celebrate its 150th anniversary and wanted to commission a play about the family and the winery.

The task of writing and performing the show fell to Oakland’s Mark Kenward, who developed the piece with director David Ford, and the finished product, Towle’s Hill, hit the road.

Beginning last May, Towle’s Hill toured the country and has now settled into a regular Friday-night slot at The Marsh.

An outsider might look at this project and think, “Oh, no! The Marsh has become a corporate shill!” But it’s not really like that. Yes, a successful winery spent some money to create a show, but the show itself is very much a Marsh product and went through the same developmental process that all Marsh shows follow.

Yes, you may leave the Towle’s Hill wanting to a) visit Rhinefarm, the 320-acre estate vineyard on the southwesterly slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains and b) buy cases and cases of their wine. But you also leave having experienced a genuinely enjoyable evening of theater.

OK, there’s about 45 minutes of theater followed by a wine tasting of Gundlach Bundschu wines, so it’s what you might call a very complete experience.

Back in the early, heady days of Gundlach Bundschu – before the Great Earthquake of 1906 destroyed a million gallons of wine and the reigning motto was “Parties, poetry, prosperity” – the family would throw lavish parties on the vineyard in tribute to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and patron saint of theater.

So it’s only appropriate that we celebrate the estate’s sesquicentennial in a theatrical way.

In Towle’s Hill, Kenward plays Towle Bundschu, the third generation of the family to farm the land. The year is 1974, a decisive moment in the family’s history because after years of selling grapes to other wineries and after lean years of cattle and sheep ranching, pear farming, hay growing, sheep, Towle’s son, Jim, wants to start bottling wine under the old family label.

But Towle doesn’t know quite what to think about that. He has come close to selling the whole place to make it a University of California, Berkeley campus or a golf course. There’s a plot of land he owns on a little nearby lake where he envisions building a home and spending his days not seeing to every little detail on a big, difficult farm subject to fires and black frost.

But his son Jim has a passion about re-planting the entire vineyard, starting over and becoming a viable vintner.

Before he makes his decision, Towle takes us through his family history and gives us an appreciation for the legacy of the past and the hope for the future in each glass of wine that finds its way to our table.

Kenward is a warm, wonderful storyteller who establishes an instant rapport with his audience. Outfitted in a baseball cap and work clothes, Kenward makes a believable farmer and an even more believable dad who appreciates that his son, like himself, his father, his grandfather and great grandfather before him, truly cares about this beautiful stretch of land.

When it comes right down to it, Towle’s Hill is really about family more than wine, and that makes for quite an intoxicating show.

So after Kenward takes his well-earned bows and the audience heads to the bar in the rear of the theater, the enthusiasm for the wine is genuine. It’s not just wine we’re tasting but history in those glasses.

Towle’s Hill does something we always want theater to do and that is make us more conscious. When we sip the wine, we do it with knowledge and with appreciation, so it’s that much tastier. And it is quite tasty. On a recent Friday the wines on offer were chardonnay, pinot and merlot.

Like the play itself, the wines were crisp, rich and eminently satisfying.

Towle’s Hill is at 8 p.m. Fridays through Nov. 21 (no show Oct. 31) at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50 on a sliding scale. Theater Dogs readers can get $15 tickets if you mention the code word: “tasting.” Call 800-838-3006 or visit