Asolo Conservatory deftly tackles challenging material in an honest observation of intricately interwoven lives.
Lanford Wilson’s “Book of Days” is the Asolo Conservatory’s latest production. It’s a gutsy choice. While the late playwright penned a string of hits, this isn’t one of them.
Imagine a cross between “Chinatown” and “Our Town” set in a fictional small town in Missouri in the late 1990s. Somewhere high in the sky, James Joyce, like the God of creation, floats invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.
James Joyce’s “Dubliners” was a tale of paralyzed lives. In an obvious nod to the Irish weaver of words, Wilson’s play unfolds in Dublin, Mo., pop. 4,500. His Dubliners are trapped as well.
The town is dominated by a cheese factory. The big cheese is Walt (Wes Tolman), a taciturn tyrant, but a man of principle. The Rev. Bobby Groves (Aleksandr Krapivkin) is the spiritual puppet master — the charismatic leader of a cultish church celebrating glossolalia and conformity.
Len (Nolan Fitzgerald Hennelly) runs Walt’s plant; he’s a visionary with dreams of artisan cheese. Walt’s cheese-hating, lazy son James (Dustin Babin) thinks that’s a waste of dad’s money, but he walked out years ago and doesn’t get a vote. Len’s wife, Ruth (Amy Helms), lands the part of Joan of Arc in a community theater production of Bernard Shaw’s “St. Joan.” Boyd, an L.A. big shot (Andrew Boswoth), is the guest director (and fleeing a scandal in the City of Angels.) On top of that human drama, there are enough affairs, manipulation, bad behavior and dirty secrets to demand a flow chart worthy of “Downton Abbey.”
Wilson shares this data, but he takes his sweet time. He starts the play with incantatory indirectness. The actors stand on risers and narrate the days of their lives. Actors walk in and out of scenes. Actors become the audience; they sit down on the risers and watch the scenes. And there are flashbacks and flash-forwards worthy of Quentin Tarantino.
OK, Wilson’s stagecraft is edgy and experimental. But his talk is trivial, expositional and quotidian with next to zero dramatic tension. Just everyday, normal, non-dramatic stuff in a small town in Missouri, yep. Until somebody casually pinpoints the town’s location in Tornado Alley.
As sure as Tom Sawyer attended his own funeral, you know there’s going to be a tornado. And somebody’s going to die.
That somebody would be Walt.
Greg Leaming deftly directs this challenging material. He resists the urge to rush the slow beginning. When the play kicks into high gear, it grips you as a result.
The cast of second-year conservatory students bring their A-game. Tolman’s Walt has the appropriate stoic gravitas—a fugitive from an Ibsen play, perhaps. Amy Helms’ Ruth is a fearless truth-teller. Helms delivers a compelling performance as her character slowly merges with Shaw’s fictional Joan of Arc over the course of the play. (Like Joan, Ruth speaks truth to power and gets nowhere. The good news is: nobody burns her at the stake.)
Hennelly’s Len is basically Mr. Nice Guy — supportive, passionate, romantic, competent and making the rest of us look bad. (He does all the cooking, yet.) Hennelly smartly conveys a man of character without making him a cloying Dudley Do-Right. Krapivkin’s Rev. Groves is a smooth operator. (In the character thumbnails, he’s described as “full of charisma and possibly other things.”) Like any good hypocrite, Rev. Groves believes his own lies. Babin’s James is another snake in the grass. A smiling, spoiled, entitled, bitter, lazy, self-justifying, glad-handing human specimen with an infinite capacity to rationalize. James embodies the worst prejudices against white people. Babin sells the character but never oversells. Anthony J. Hamilton is fine as James’ catspaw, Earl. Bosworth and Kedren Spencer are equally fine as refugees from life in the L.A. fast lanes and the sex-and-drug revolution, respectively. Great performances from the rest of the 12-member cast as well.
It takes a village of actors to portray a village of characters. Wilson’s obsessively fascinated with their intricately interconnected lives. But look closely enough, and you’ll actually find a plot.
At the end of act one, Ruth deduces that Walt’s “accidental” death doesn’t add up. The second act becomes a murder mystery. But that’s like saying “Moby Dick” was a whaling adventure. Wilson’s indebted to James Joyce. Agatha Christie, not so much. If you’ve read a detective story in your life, you can figure out the whodunit in five minutes. But why is really the point. And to cut to the chase:
The bad guy wins. Somebody gets away with murder.
Why did he do it? For the money.
How did he get away with it? He paid people off.
But the bad guy’s bribe is never stated explicitly. Everybody knows. But nobody says.
The town makes the crime possible — but only because the shepherd told his sheep what to do. In a parallel with Shaw’s play, the spiritual leader gets in bed with temporal power. He speaks all the right Biblical buzzwords. But his council is of the devil.
Wilson’s portrait of the Midwest Bible belt isn’t flattering. But he avoids the tired tropes of stupid hicks and brainless Bible thumpers. His true believers are smart. Rev. Groves may be a religious huckster. But he read Shaw’s play and knows who Gilles de Rais was.
This non-mystery story emerges in a fragmented, broken-mirror narrative. Scenes repeat, with slightly changed dialog. (A nod to Tarantino, I think.) Actors become spectators — watching the bad guy win. Like rubberneckers gawking at a bloody accident. They gawk and drive by. They don’t want to get involved.
But arty, stylized trickery can get mighty dull mighty fast if there’s no honest observation behind it. There is. Wilson’s characters talk like real people; their inner lives are believable; the secrets and lies of their public selves are equally believable. The immoral moral of the story?
Upton Sinclair said it best …
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
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