Small Town Downer

Lanford Wilson's genius draws blanks in Book of Days.

I've been a fan of Lanford Wilson's work ever since I saw one of his early one-acts at the legendary Caffe Cino in New York in the mid-1960s. It might have been This Is the Rill Speaking, and I think it played in tandem with Sam Shepard's Icarus's Mother. I went only because Wilson's play featured an extraordinarily handsome actor whose attentions I, along with half my acting class, craved. But I left...amazed. Astonished. Galvanized. Converted. Accustomed to well-made, three-act plays, plays in which characters gave long, impassioned speeches describing their feelings and motivations, I really hadn't understood that theater could be so elliptical and so immediate. I didn't know that what I'd witnessed was part of a rebirth and a revitalization of American theater, but I did know that the words and rhythms were buzzing against the bones of my forehead as I left; the imagery embedded itself in my consciousness and has stayed there ever since.

So the last thing I expected of Wilson's Book of Days, currently playing at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, was a flatly didactic evening of theater that seemed to go on forever.

The play, set in Dublin, Missouri, is a bitter exegesis of life in small-town America. At first, as the cast introduces itself to us on a set that resembles a high school gymnasium, we think we're in for something softer and more nostalgic. There's a charming young couple, Ruth and Len Hoch. They both work for the town's primary employer, a cheese factory, and Len -- with the permission of the factory's avuncular owner, Walt Bates--is experimenting with artisan cheese. Meanwhile, Ruth has tried out for a production of George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan, which is being directed by Boyd Middleton, a onetime theatrical high flyer driven to the purgatory of community theater by a Los Angeles sex scandal.

Brian L. Upton and Missy Moore in Book of 
Days.
Eric Weber
Brian L. Upton and Missy Moore in Book of Days.

Then there's Martha Hoch, Len's mother, a former hippie who is forced to conceal her feminist beliefs in order to keep her job as dean of the local junior college; the Bates family, which includes Walt's placidly conventional wife, Sharon, his son, James -- who's itching to take over the cheese factory and has no patience with Len's fancy cheeses -- and James's unhappy wife LouAnne. Add Ginger Reed, the starstruck assistant director of St. Joan, the shambling, none-too-bright Earl and the Reverend Bobby Groves, and you've got the lineup.

Throughout the story, the cast members serve as narrator and chorus, and although this is undoubtedly a bow to Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the device still feels dated.

The affable Walt dies in an accident while he's out hunting with Earl. Ruth, whose role as St. Joan has emboldened her, finds Earl's story unconvincing, and tries to alert the rest of the town to a possible murder. Scene by scene, almost all the other characters reveal their cowardice and venality. Mrs. Bates is more interested in maintaining her comfortable life than in mourning her husband or investigating his death. James, who's been cheating on LouAnn all along, wastes no time in committing himself to his mistress and also taking over the factory. The Reverend Bobby Groves, as smarmy and conniving a churchman as ever existed in a literature full of such characters, helps strengthen the web of lying and greed.

Book of Daystells us that life in this country has been corrupted on every level and in almost every way. It posits a connection between the vile plasticized food we eat, the subjugation of women, the corporatization of America, and the unholy alliance between politics and right-wing religion. The odd thing is, I agree with this viewpoint entirely. If it were just a matter of saluting its truth, I would have loved Book of Days. But there's such a thing as artistry, and apparently Wilson's commendable anger drove out his ability to access his own.

There's nothing much symbolic or allusive here. Every idea is stated and stated again. Every character embodies a characteristic Wilson wants to applaud or deride. Each scene hammers home a point. When you invoke St. Joan, you're invoking some powerful imagery. But the only real connection between Shaw's play and Wilson's is in Ruth's sense that, like Joan, she is standing in front of evil, church-and-state-empowered judges. The action gets interesting whenever James or the Reverend Bobby Groves appear, because these men are so fascinatingly and unrelentingly evil, but both characters remain two-dimensional.

Most of the performances are as convincing as the script allows -- and there's a magnificent tornado orchestrated, presumably, by sound designer El Armstrong and the rest of the tech staff. Theresa Reid is an expressive Ruth, although she is called on to repeat certain insights so often that you lose all interest in them. Even the usually mesmerizing Terry Ann Watts can't carry off the hippie-ish Martha Hoch, because we've heard every word out of this woman's mouth somewhere before. Jacob T. Morehead is a vital presence as Earl, and I have to admit I'll remember Joseph Norton's Reverend Groves and Brian L. Upton's James, both because of their chillingly convincing nastiness and because I'm seeing their prototypes so much on the news lately.

 
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