Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Lanford Wilson's New Play Book Of Days
Also see Richard's review of Thief River
TheatreWorks' first play of 2003 is the west coast premiere of Lanford Wilson's newest play about Missouri life, Book of Days. This drama has the look of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, especially in the opening scene and the funeral scene in the first act. The play saw the light of day in Chelsea, Michigan, at the Purple Rose Theatre in 1998. Also that year, the production played at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Hartford Stage. Last year, Days reached New York, where it opened at the Signature Theatre on November 3rd and ran until December 8th. Reviews were very good in the New York papers.
As the actors say to the audience "this is Dublin, Missouri, population 4000, a clean, quiet, wide awake, prosperous town with more churches than bars and a cheese factory at the center of commerce. There is a movie theater and even a little community theater putting on plays". The theater is going to put on George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (very progressive for a small town). However, everything in this serene hamlet is not what it seems, and we are soon confronted by a mystery - the death of the leading citizen of the town.
Others in the cast consist of the easily vacillating Christian fundamentalist minister, the Reverend Bobby Groves (Darren Bridgett), who sounds a bit like Pat Robertson; the leading citizen and owner of the cheese factory, Walt Bates (James Mantell), who really appreciates a damn good provolone; his son James (Gene Carvalho), who is a notorious womanizer and a cheesy politician outwardly full of born again Christian piety; James' wife LouAnn (Jennifer Wagner), who is being cheated on by her husband; Walt's wife Sharon (Ashleigh Evans), who is a typical small town God fearing and church going woman and the rock of the fundamentalist church. No four letter words will ever come out of Sharon's mouth and in one "scene" after the death of the Walt, she refuses to say nasty words about the man. (Another actress, Dawn L. Troupe, comes in to give out some mean expletives about the man). Mark's mother Martha Hoch (Sheila O'Neill Ellis) is a real hoot; a former hippie who is now a college dean, she is bright and optimistic in spite of the changing times. However, at times she wonders about the future:
"... slopping barefoot and naked through the rain and mud at Woodstock. For what? To make our country free! Liberation! And look at what the Perforated Generation has done with it".
There are Earl (Richard Bolster), a shifty and ambitious worker at the cheese plant who wants Len's job, and Sheriff Conroy (David Babich), who does not want to rock the boat in this small town community and make accusations of a murderer in the town. We can't forget the sexy Ginger Reed (Dawn L. Troupe), who is the assistant director of Saint Joan and is doing more with the director than directing the play within the play. The director, Boyd Middleton (Allen McKelvey), is the only outsider in the play. He is a big Broadway and film director. However, he is escaping from a hidden past by coming to this small town to direct the Shaw play. There is a splendid scene in the first act involving the funeral of Walt Bates that is strictly out of Our Town. It has the same setting and lighting and almost the same dialogue. The first act ends on what will become a whodoneit for the second act.
Ruth becomes like Saint Joan, trying to unravel the mystery of Walt's death as she comes to understand that there is something more disturbing and sinister going on in Dublin. Influential people in the town are in denial or are engaging in a cover-up. and the criminal may never be punished. Ruth, like the French martyr, searches vainly and desperately for an honest person to hear her testimony as to what really happened in the death of the town's richest person. She confronts the hypocrisy and intolerance of the town, and she uncovers a commanding tear in the fabric of this small community trust in faith and each other.
Director Robert Kelly has assembled a fine cast of some of our most talented area actors. Stacy Ross, Mark Phillips, Darren Bridgett and Sheila O'Neill Ellis do extraordinary work. As Ruth, Ross is expert in portraying a susceptible person lacking confidence both in preparation for the part of Saint Joan and in her investigation of the murder of Walt. Mark Phillips is properly neurotic when he expounds the virtues of a good cheddar and provolone. However, he very touching in many scenes. Darren Bridgett turns in a great performance as the smooth talker who could open his own born again Christian talk radio program. Sheila O'Neill Ellis has the best lines and speaks them with great insight into what is happening in today's world. Gene Carvalho is excellent as the antsy and smarmy rich kid, and Allen McKelvey turns in a strong performance as the director. He is ably supported by Dawn L. Troupe as his lover and assistant.
Book of Days' set reminds me of the set for Our Town, with open spaces and all of the cast providing a Greek chorus for the proceedings. There are spare trees lining the wings of the stage, and the trees shake violently in a scene in which a tornado hits the town, with the loud sounds of the storm being furnished by Cliff Caruthers. The lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt is also very effective. Director Robert Kelly has staged the work flawlessly with this strong ensemble of actors.
Book of Days runs thru February 9 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center in Mountain View, California. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org. There next production will be the world premiere of Cherylene Lee's The Legacy Codes.