Book of Days
Lanford Wilson's Book of Days, now at Boston's Lyric Stage, was commissioned by Jeff Daniel's Purple Rose Theatre in Michigan where it was first done in 1998. Signature Theatre finally mounted a New York production, directed by the playwright's longtime friend and collaborator Marshall W. Mason, as part of its Lanford Wilson season last year.
Often compared to Our Town, this latest of Wilson's plays with an undertow of political agenda is more Lake Wobegone than Grovers Corners. The setting is the small town of Dublin, Missouri with a successful cheese factory as its economic hub, a well-established amateur theatre to nourish the souls of those artistically inclined and a Christian Church that purports to be the moral backbone of the community.
But this is the sort of place where the fact that everyone knows everybody else's business already serves to keep most unacceptable behavior within reasonable bounds. Until, that is, the pillar of the community is killed in a hunting accident in the middle of a monster tornado. The authorities are willing to overlook the incongruities reported by the only witness but not Ruth, the bookkeeper at the cheese factory. Suddenly emboldened by her role as St. Joan in a production at the local theatre, she smells foul play - literally. She refuses to let it go, even when her zeal places both her husband's job at the cheese factory and her mother-in-law's at the nearby Christian college in jeopardy.
The very element that has, perhaps, precluded a commercial Broadway run of Book of Days - a large ensemble cast lacking in parts of sufficient heft for "star" turns - makes it eminently suitable for other theatrical venues. Director Spiro Veloudos, in fact, introduces a slew of performers who are making their Lyric Stage debut in this cast of twelve.
Kippy Goldfarb as the victim's widow and Steven Barkhimer, as the out-of-town guest director, are also spot on, but the rest of the ensemble struggles with the little Wilson gives each of them to work with. Sam Hurlbut as Ruth's husband never quite reaches a state of nirvana describing how to make artesian cheeses. Ray McDavitt doesn't have Walt's confidence as the head of the community by virtue of being its factory owner and richest citizen. Nor does Michael Kaye ooze with misplaced entitlement as his only son or give off an aura of duplicity for his part in the seedier doings about town. Beth Gotha as a middle-aged survivor of the sixties, Doug Bowen-Flynn as the unctuous Reverend and Lea Contarino as the beleaguered daughter-in-law of Dublin's first family also miss their marks.
This isn't an easy play to stage given how rapidly the ensemble members move in and out of direct address, interaction with each other and functioning as a "Greek chorus." Velodous' choice to scatter the chorus around the playing space makes it difficult to follow as one individual picks up the tale from another. Also distracting are the movement of the chorus on and off and the occasional use of minimal, yet very specific, set pieces in only a few scenes.
Set designer Janie E. Howland does rise to the challenge, however. Her handsome unit set suggests both the stately fašade of the grandest "show" house in town, with its white pillars and decorated porticos, and the peeling paint of everything else behind it. And the shadow of a medieval spire cut into the veneer of the stage floor deftly underscores what must have been very much on the playwright's mind in 1998.
Behind the fun of the "who-done-it" and the picaresque look at small-town life lurks the insidiousness of the Moral Right. The Church at the center of this community tries to pass judgment on what art it sees as fit for the community's consumption while at the same time looking the other way when the actions of its own supporters get called into question. The resolution of Book of Days suggests that Wilson wasn't optimistic about which side would triumph in a showdown in our own world; but the battle's not over, and works like this one serve to tip the balance in the favor of the artists.
Book of Days, now through November 22nd at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St. (Copley Square), Boston, Mass (in the YWCA Building.) Performances times are: Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 4pm & 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with Wednesday matinees at 2pm on October 19th & November 19th only. Tickets are available at the Lyric Stage box office (617) 437-7172 or online at www.lyricstage.com.