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A CurtainUp Review
Book of Days
By Elyse Sommer
With Book of Days, one of Wilson's most recent plays (1999), now at the Signature's own, intimate Peter Norton Space, it's a relief to note that this invaluable company hasn't succumbed to the get-a-star bug. The program for Book of Days lists only the names of the author and his longtime collaborator, director Marshall W. Mason in big letters. The cast consists of twelve seasoned actors, none of them with big box office star power, all giving terrific performances. If some stand out more than others, it's because Wilson has created so many characters that he doesn't have time to develop some as fully as others.
Book of Days, like Burn This, uses a fatal accident as the device to create its dramatic complications. The setting is a fictional version of Wilson's own childhood Missouri home. As a genre it might be classified as a mystery -- to be more specific and in keeping with Wilson's concerns, a socio-political mystery.
The play's mood shifts from light to increasing darkness. Its opening feels like a page from Our Town, with the whole company acting as stage manager-narrators presenting Dublin, Missouri as another Grovers Corners, a town bathed in summer sunshine and the nostalgic pleasures associated with small town life. There is even some laugh out loud humor, but it's soon evident that bubbling beneath Dublin's tranquil surface is a dark current of divisive attitudes waiting for a storm to errupt. That storm is the set off by the death of Walt Bates (Jim Haynie), the town's leading citizen and the owner of a cheese making plant. The Dublin tycoon and minor tyrant's death is accompanied by one of the best staged real storms I've seen in a long while.
Lanson is no mystery writer so don't expect a surprise who-dun-it. But whatever holes you may poke into the details of the mystery and despite the sketchiness of some of the characters, Book of Days is an absorbing drama. that ultimately weaves together the lose threads of the various relationships. The journal-like day-by-day chronicling of events which gives the play its title works well. The very dark vision of the powerful second act is unfortunately all too believable.
Mason has staged of what sounds like a realistic, kitchen-sink play, with expressionistic flair. The twelve representative citizens move around the deceptively bare bones set by John Lee Beatty who, though best known for his drop-dead realistic scenic designs, is also an expert abstractionist. The two tiers of benches and some movable wall panels to evoke a variety of indoor and outdoor scenes, including a forest and a baptismal bath, enable the actors to segue between being the Greek-à -la- Missouri chorus of narrator-announcers to interacting in small groups (mostly in pairs) while one or two actors linger in the background.
Actually, there are only eleven Dubliners, since Boyd Middleton (Jonathan Hogan), is in town just long enough to direct the play-within-a-play, Saint Joan which allows Wilson to parallel Shaw's attack on the church with the Christian Right. Middleton, a one-time Broadway director reduced to community theater gigs by Hollywood politics and a scandal (a rather obvious contrivance) discovers that stars are everywhere. Ruth Hoch (Miriam Shor), the cheese plant's bookkeeper, proves to be the perfect Joan (as Shor is the pefect Ruth). His Hollywood experience makes it easy for him to sympathize with Ruth's husband Len (Matthew Rauch), the cheese plant manager who wants his boss Walt (Jim Haynie) to give him time and freedom to make the cheese plant prosper with quality cheese instead of continuing to allow the big cheese processors to dictate shoddy, plastic products for the sake of a profitable bottom line.
By staging Saint Joan, Middleton is, if not the stranger riding into town to save it from its baser self, the facilitator. In casting Ruth, who also happens to know more about rifles than the incompetent Sheriff Atkins (Tuck Milligan), to play Joan, Boyd indirectly fires her up to be the town's conscience, alas, like Joan, fated to have her voice go unheeded.
Others stepping into the spotlight from the choral ensemble are the cheese manufacturer Bates; his church-going wife Sharon (Nancy Snyder), who at fifty-two is still easy to picture as the prettiest girl in high school, their son James (Alan Campbell) who has less interest in cheese than cheesy politics and whose Christian piety has not prevented him from cheating on his wife LouAnn (Hope Chernov). Other townsfolk, all most suitably dressed by Laura Crow, include: Martha Hoch (Susan Kellermann), Len's smart mother who has keeps her hippie past under wraps for the sake of her job as Dean of a Christian Junior College; the well-intentioned but easily corruptible Reverend Bobby Groves (John Lepard); Earl Hill (Boris McGiver), an ambitious beyond his abilities Bates employee and Martha's younger counterpart Ginger, whose job as Boyd's assistant and romantic interest.
As some of the characters provide richer performance opportunities so does some of what happens between those characters. Two scenes featuring Boris McGiver -- one in which he is baptized and another in which he meets with James in the woods-- are grippingly acted and staged (here, as in the storm scene, kudos to Dennis Parichy and Chuck London and Stewart London's sound effects which strong support Beatty's set). Hope Chernov, who is excellent as the rejected wife whose loyalty to the church undoes her temporary courage to expose her husband's duplicity, is particularly affecting when she falls to the floor in a fit of religious fervor and again when she succumbs to religious conformity. Wilson's strengths come most into play during the more quiet scenes such as those between Susan Kellermann and Sharon Bates, the two very different older women who nevertheless have the quiet rapport of old acquaintances.
With the Burn This still running, you still have time to sign up for the entire Wilson season which will include Talley's Folley (January 2-February 24) and the New York premiere of Rain Dance (April 15-June 8).