In this small Missouri town, everyone knows everyone and everything. The church where people notice when you’re not in your pew, the factory where your high school classmates put in their shift decades after graduation, the theater where an out-of-town director is questioned for their choice of play; these are the tensions underlying Book of Days by Lanford Wilson. The conventional combination of small-town personalities and daily life, however, is turned on end after the sudden and mysterious death of one of the town’s most stalwart citizens. As presented by the St. Mark’s Players, Book of Days focuses on the many different responses to death and how jealousy, greed, ambition, religion, and purity can spur you to (in)action.
Center to the drama was the bookkeeper at the local cheese factory and aspiring actress on the community theater scene, Ruth, played by the fiery Caroline Adams; her husband and cheese artisan at the factory, Len, played by the calm and conservative Dan Hubbell; and his mother and dean of the local Christian college, Martha, played by the spunky Karen V Lawrence. These three banded together against the storms raging around them, both literally and figuratively.
Casting Ruth as Joan in the community’s production of St. Joan, Book of Days attempted to use Ruth and the rehearsals/performances of St. Joan as a historical mirror for the drama unfolding in the modern day. While Adams did an admirable job rapidly internalizing her onstage counterpart’s fixation on justice and truth, the show’s plot added too many other competing and often unrelated or contrary elements in its secondary story arches for this interesting conceit of modern-day Joan of Arc to take hold.
The town ensemble story arches were riddled with chaotic clashes of power imbalance that unfortunately muddied the thematic waters so that it was unclear what purpose the clashes were supposed to be illuminating. That being said, the Players earnestly leaned in to the conflicts and tried to tease out the connections between the creative though questionable theater director, Boyd (Mario Font) and his self-assured assistant, Ginger Reed (Margo Weill); the patriarchal factory owner, Walt (Paul Brewster) and his submissive wife, Sharon (Anupama Torgal); their ambitious son James (Casey Ewell) and his loyal friend Earl (Sidney Davis); the sheriff (Peter Orvetti) and the search for justice; the manipulative Reverend (Ernie Molina) and the wronged LouAnn Bates (Mary Patano). Unlike the partnership of Ruth and Len, the rest centered around relationships of friction that made many of the show lines sit uncomfortably.
The crew behind the production made several creative decisions in how they illustrated the considerable passage of time and change in tone as the days advanced. The use of house music before curtain and during intermission instantly settled you in to a carefree folk state of mind. Similarly, the sound design by Heather Cipu and the lighting design by Ashley Holmes did a good job of shifting the action closer and closer to its boiling point. Cipu’s direction also made good use of the set’s many levels, as designed by Daniel Lavanga and Alix Neenan. I similarly enjoyed how Cipu threaded the idea of the dramatic chorus throughout using group speak and lines that bounced from person to person on various corners of the stage. Even having the characters off stage, still visible and seated along the sides to watch, brought an eerie meaning to the old adage that someone is always watching in a small town.
While Book of Days didn’t work for me as a play because it was trying to do too much, what was clear from this production was that the St. Mark’s Players occupy a special place in the theater community in DC. Evident from the warm home of the church and the even warmer audience support of those gathered, the thespian passions brought together by this production of Book of Days are arguably the most important, enduring part of community theater.
Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.