Book of Days

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson has always been an experimenter. He began his career at an edgy, avant-garde theatre Off-Off-Broadway in 1963, and has since written 17 full-length plays including Rimers of Eldritch, Hot L Baltimore, The Mound Builders, Fifth of July, Tally's Folly, and Burn This.

In his most recent work, Book of Days, now running at the Aurora Fox, Wilson draws on his historical roots, setting the play in a small town in Missouri, much like the one in which he grew up. In a clever twist, director Christopher Tabb draws on Wilson's theatre roots in breaching conventions to stage the work.

Breaking the fourth wall with both the townfolk of Dublin, Missouri acting as a chorus (which is indicated in the script), and with individual characters ruminating over their motives (which is not indicated in the script), Tabb produces the interesting effect of adding a significant psychological subtext to the seemingly placid existence and languid pace of this Southern county seat.

Wilson reinforces this intensity by opening with a feeling not unlike that of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, then quickly disabuses us of any leisurely expectations by ticking off the days at an increasing pace as the plot develops.

Finally, the addition of a "play within a play" and a murder mystery give the story symbolic overtones and emotional urgency. Taken together, all of these elements produce a complex experience that requires some discussion and thought to explicate, over the requisite après-theatre glass of wine, of course.

The analytic structure of the play itself and the effort it makes to deconstruct its own workings, coupled with the Aurora Fox's physical separation between stage and the audience, demand a hyper-realistic style to deliver the message. Thankfully, Tabb has elicited forceful performances from his entire ensemble.

Theresa Reid plays Ruth Hoch, a housewife who dabbles in community musical theatre. Her dramatic education and everyday life is thrown into turmoil when she gets cast in the leading role of Shaw's St. Joan, directed by one-time Broadway golden-boy, Boyd Middleton, played by Stephen Remund.

Playing on rehearsal process itself, Hoch and Remund set the stylistic tone for the production, working through both Ruth's self-doubts, as she begins to inhabit St. Joan's uneasy skin, and Boyd's checkered past, which has led him to this dead-end venue.

Photo of Brian L. Upton as James and Missy Moore as Ginger
Brian L. Upton as James
and Missy Moore as Ginger
Photo: Eric Weber
If it weren't for his provacative production assistant, Ginger Reed, Boyd's soul might go permanently south, but Missy Moore's performance leaves no doubt his pursuit is well directed, showing us a heart of gold behind those wiles.

Ruth's supportive husband, Len, not only has his hands full dealing with the histrionics resulting from her immersion into character, but has his own career challenges at the cheese factory, the town's main industry. Frederick Katona's Len is the calm eye at the center of the story's tornado, never losing sight of what feels right, even under physical threat.

It's easy to see how Len got that way—his mom Martha, an ex-Woodstock hippie, takes it all in stride, suffering no flack from anyone, while always willing to offer advice. Terry Ann Watts expresses Martha's demonstrative nature both physically and emotionally, giving as well as she gets.

At the top of the town's feeding chain is Walt Bates, a self-made cheese mogul who runs his family with the same hierarchical mentality as he does his plant. Dan Mundell's Walt is every inch self-made and self-centered.

Sharon, his supportive and dependent wife, is given a sophisticated and detailed portrayal by Karen Erickson. Her offspring, James, twisted by his father's money and his mother's indulgence, is drawn with a compelling mix of charm and menace by Brian L. Upton. His wife, Louann, is, in Erin Prestia Robins' hands a deft reversal of James' dramatic arc, at first appearing stuck-up and unapproachable, then finding in her own tragic circumstances a moral compass as true as Len's.

Drifting at the edge of these relationships is Earl Hill, James' old school buddy and Walt's hired hand. Jacob T. Morehead's portrait of an ambitious and malicious good old boy, short on brains and more manipulable than he'd like to admit, is a force as unpredictable as the powerful tornado that shakes the auditorium.

Finally, even the forces charged with providing restraint are no closer to moral insights than the perpetrators themselves. Joseph Norton's Reverend Bobby Groves could have walked right of out a televangelist's Sunday morning money-worshiping session, and Brian Thompson's Sheriff Conroy Atkins provides the imposing stature and laconic close-mindedness so prevalent in our modern police forces.

The Aurora Fox's multilayered productionof Lanford Wilson's Book of Days runs through May 16th. 303-361-2910.

Bob Bows


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