Colonial Players of Annapolis’ production of Book of Days is powerfully ambitious. Lanford Wilson’s 2000 play follows the lives of several residents of the small town of Dublin, Missouri, over a dramatic summer. Directed by Shirley Panek, it ably juggles many moving parts, using creative lighting and staging to help tell a story of theater, religion, and death.
Robin Schwartz gives a powerful emotional range to Ruth, a woman trying out for a local production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. She is touchingly unsure of herself at the audition, fumbling and nervous, and yet, performs the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet beautifully. When performing Saint Joan, she becomes determined to convince the judges of Joan’s rightness, and is angered by their stubbornness. Later, convinced that Walt’s (Timothy Sayles) death was not an accident, she is determined to find out the truth, even though the whole town refuses to listen. Her shock and anger at their reaction is incredibly powerful.
Jeff Mocho plays Len, Ruth’s husband, as a caring, supportive man. He hugs her and builds her up. He passionately defends his plan for making artisan cheese, in the face of powerful opposition, but only once gets angry, when Ruth’s pursuit of the truth threatens his job.
Jason Vaughan plays Saint Joan Director Boyd with a mixture of intelligence and cynicism. Coming from Hollywood, he first comes across as a wearied elitist, but quickly sees Ruth’s talent and reveals his own passions. His conversations with Len and Ruth make him charmingly endearing. A later conversation with Reverend Bobby (David Cooper) shows his talent of civilly defending his play, while also revealing his own past mistakes.
Jean Berard plays Martha, Len’s mother, with humor and wit. Dean at a nearby Christian college, she bemoans the restrictions placed on her students, remembering her own wild youth; Len “was conceived at Woodstock.” She also comforts Walt’s widow Sharon (Darice Clewell), giving her good advice. She has a secret of her own that threatens to come out if Ruth pursues her investigation.
Timothy Sayles gives a quiet strength to Walt, Ruth and Len’s employer. He remembers fondly his son James’ (Paul Valleau) high school basketball game, disappointed at the man his son has become. He argues with James, angrily defending his right to run his business his way. His death is shocking. Darice Clewell plays his wife Sharon with a quiet fierceness, perfectly capturing her grief; after the funeral, she makes a joke and laughs until she cries. She slaps James during an argument, then tells him what he needs to do to make things right.
Paul Valleau’s James is a creepy, sleazy manipulator. He approaches Ruth after rehearsal, offering to “give her a ride.” An ambitious church-going Christian with secrets of his own, he spells out the four-letter curse words while throwing his weight around. The play’s end shockingly shows just how far he can go to get what he wants, as he calmly ties up loose ends. Erica Miller plays his wife LouAnn with righteous fury, stalking off in anger when she finds out some of James’ secrets.
Ashley Spooner gives a youthful confidence to Ginger, Boyd’s assistant and a Dublin local. When James propositions her, she refuses, throwing her arm around his neck and suggestively touching his chest — as he had done to her earlier. Her most powerful performance is playing Sharon after being told of Walt’s death, as she screams and demands to see the body.
Matt Leyendecker plays Earl, James’ friend and Walt’s employee, with powerful emotion. The last to see Walt alive, he shakes while describing the scene, horrified at finding the body. As Ruth questions him, he shakes his head in denial, then picks up his chainsaw. His last scene is incredibly moving.
David Cooper gives a religious authority to Reverend Bobby, bringing up Boyd’s past and working with James to smooth away his problems, all while raising his arm to heaven. Bob Singer gives a stubbornness to the Sheriff, absolutely refusing to investigate Ruth’s claims.
Edd Miller has created a versatile set that allows for easy scene changes. Wooden benches, crates, and chairs are scattered throughout the stage, moved around as necessary. During a tornado, the cast lifts and carries them in a circle, to represent the storm’s ferocity. Offstage are trees for a garden.
Costume Designer Amy Atha-Nicholls has fashioned simple, everyday outfits. James, Boyd, and Reverend Bobby mostly wear suits, with Boyd tieless, while the rest wear khakis and nice shirts. Ginger wears tight-fitting clothes and short skirts, and LouAnn has high-quality, fashionable outfits.
Lighting Designer Eric Lund helps connect the play’s different strands. During the tornado, strobe lights flash for lightning. For Ruth’s Shakespeare audition, the lights focus on her alone. The spotlight shines on each actor as they give their monologue, and as they comment offstage. At the beginning and end, with the cast sitting and standing around the stage, the lights dim on each one as they leave. Sound Designer Richard Atha-Nicholls throws out nature sounds throughout the show, as well as the sounds of a basketball game during Walt’s monologue. A ticking clock is heard throughout, and occasionally, a gunshot.
Director Shirley Panek deftly handles the play’s challenging aspects. The actors navigate the stage and each other perfectly, entering and exiting at the right moments, and commenting on the action exactly right. While the first act drags a bit, and all the connections can be difficult to follow, Act II ties everything together for a satisfying, if troubling, conclusion. Book of Days showcases Colonial Players’ talents for tackling all sorts of material and is well worth seeing.
Running Time: Three hours, including a 15-minute intermission.