As a group portrait of Middle America, Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days makes us feel like we’re sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table of a distant aunt we don’t often see. Some guests are charming, some are grotesque, but all are intriguing because they’re all our relatives.
Brown University Theatre/Sock and Buskin do a good job of making this socio-psychological quilting bee captivating, widening our interest beyond the character types of the Missouri of Wilson’s upbringing.
As though fearful that these small-town denizens might not be enough to hold our attention, halfway through the playwright goes all David Lynch on us. Peeling back the veneer of straitlaced religiosity, he shows rot beneath. Not only does the death of one of these solid citizens shock the community, but to their discomfort, a possible murder is lugged into the light.
An even dozen characters populate the story. There is a couple whose large talents, from creative to entrepreneurial, are stifled by little opportunity. We hear from a free-thinking female dean at a Christian junior college, whose free-loving, drug-busted past keeps her in jeopardy of blackmail if she speaks her mind. There are an evangelical minister and a sheriff, both in denial about appearances not being realities. Crucially, a prosperous and apparently contented Christian family is stuffed to bursting with unexpressed resentments and unfulfilled desires.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town comes to mind, particularly the portion that takes place in a graveyard as the dead recount their lives. Book of Days opens similarly, with the townsfolk describing the fictional Dublin, Missouri, pop. 4780, with its pool hall and dress shop and a dry goods store "that smells like wheat."
The rah-rah, Up with People tone remains for a while. The central character, Ruth Hoch (Georgia Cohen), chirps into a rehearsal for Shaw’s Saint Joan. She’s full of Midwestern cheer but also full of talent, so condescending LA director Boyd Middleton (Seth Meyer), hiding from the aftermath of a statutory rape charge, quickly drops his disdainful attitude.
This matter of people having much more beneath their surfaces — or masks — recurs. Ruth’s husband, Len (Chris Bremner), may have the dull job of managing the local cheese plant, but he’s a gourmet cook as well. Also, he has a long-term business plan for producing aged artisan provolone and cheddar that would impress Donald Trump. His boss, Walt Bates (Teddy Goldsmith), is sensitive to his manager’s dream but not to his own longsuffering wife (Anne Troup) or his lazy son, James (Tom Lipinski), who blew the bar exam six times until he got around to actually studying.
James is the flip side of the life-oriented Hochs in this Manichean exploration of personality types. James is interested in things, whether they are the two young women in town who spurn his advances, or the material things that money can buy. As Ruth points out to him, he also is a hypocrite, spouting church-going advice when he isn’t at home watching X-rated satellite channels.
With only one or two exceptions, the acting is good, to the point that looking past the fact that college students are playing middle-aged people is as easy as looking through the fourth wall. This play lives or dies on Ruth captivating us, especially since her audition balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is supposed to wow a pro. Cohen accomplishes that and goes on to draw us into Ruth’s growing concern that things are not as they seem in this smug little town. Other actors impress us as well, such as Sarah Bowman as James’s uptight mother; she informs with understanding what could have been a shrill portrayal. In another role whose misfiring could annoy us, Lipinski allows James to express his inner snake but doesn’t make him oilier than he’d actually reveal himself to be.
Wilson tries hard to tie in the persona of Saint Joan with Ruth’s own psyche and spirited pursuit of truth. The playwright’s most explicit parallel to the intolerance of the Inquisition is in a church scene, when the townspeople take the place of the ecclesiastic jurors in Shaw’s play. They react against Ruth trying to get them to listen to her accusation of who the murderer obviously is. When one of her friends starts speaking in tongues and another "interprets" the glossolalia as condemning Ruth, the responses chill us, not only as panicked outpourings of their fears of facing reality, but also as a reminder of how that also happens beyond church walls.
The set design by Michael McGarty gives us the whitewashed barn board of what could be a rural church. Between that physical reminder and the actors, directed by Peter Sampieri, who inhabit their characters so well, Book of Days becomes an evocative reminder of the need to look behind façades.
Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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