Stage: Wednedday, June 13, 2002
Heavy Reading

WaterTower’s ‘Book of Days’ is a weighty — but worthwhile — tome.


In the late-1990s, actor Jeff “Dumb and Dumber” Daniels commissioned lauded American playwright Lanford Wilson to write the comic drama Book of Days for the Purple Rose Theater, operated by Daniels’ Missouri-based company. You probably need to know this to accept one of the play’s rather unlikely scenarios: A nationally famous director of stage and screen goes to a Missouri community theater to direct a version of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, and rhapsodizes about how wonderful the actors there are. This observation comes despite the fact that local accountant Ruth Hoch has arrived at auditions believing the production will be My Fair Lady.

In Wilson’s overt flattery to the Purple Rose, you can detect Daniels’ passion for cultivating original, quality stage work outside theater capitals like New York and Chicago. And even while stage, film, and television have certified urbanites as neurotic, love-starved solipsists, it’s nice to see that Wilson has skirted Mid-American clichés and — for the most part — created intelligent, multilayered people for Dublin, Mo., where the local economy is supported by a cheese factory.

WaterTower Theatre’s area premiere of Book of Days was engaging but scattered, but it’s not really the fault of co-directors Terry Martin and James Paul Lemons. We can blame the author. He’s crammed so many moods and themes and subplots into this one play (which clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission) that he’s created not an epic of humanity but a wildly spinning kaleidoscope. It’s a very full script indeed. Still, WaterTower’s staging lets some of the finest actors in the Fort Worth-Dallas area soar in individual and ensemble moments.

The central engine of the show is the production of Saint Joan, where the accountant Ruth (Kelly Grandjean) is ultimately cast as Joan of Arc. Director Boyd Middleton (Robert Prentiss) is impressed by Ruth’s knowledge of firearms; he feels he can translate her hunting experiences with her father into the stuff of an onstage woman warrior. Reverend Bobby Groves (Steven Pounders), who encourages the speaking of tongues in his congregation, watches disapprovingly as some of his parishioners participate in Shaw’s historical play. He dismisses it as “socialist, anti-church propaganda.” Meanwhile, after a local man dies in a hunting accident during a storm, Ruth challenges the coroner’s ruling and, eventually, her neighbors and fellow churchgoers, who for the most part believe she’s got Joan on the brain and has become delusional.

Lanford Wilson’s show seems deliberately modeled on Our Town, in the way the actors introduce scene changes, move props around under the lights, and sometimes directly address the audience. But with the amount of slime the playwright wipes from this town’s underbelly, it’s more like Kraft Theater presents Peyton Place. That said, it’s a minor miracle that Wilson works in some witty, intelligent, and poignant dialogue, and that the production holds your attention and hangs on (barely) to subtlety through all these calamities. Lighting designer David Natinsky casts the essentially bare stage in various glowing, fragmented shades, perhaps inspiring the actors to play at a subtler, more reflective pitch than the disaster-prone plot does. Book of Days is an ensemble piece, and it seems unfair to single out a particular performer for praise. I will say that Grandjean as Ruth/Joan of Arc manages to convey both unworldliness and gut-level smarts. This feat goes a long way toward lending the whole affair an earthy credibility that the haphazard script itself doesn’t achieve.

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