by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Lyric Stage Company
140 Clarendon St., Copley Sq., Boston / (617) 437-7172
Through Nov. 22

Reviewed by Will Stackman

There's more than a hint of Lanford Wilson's early work, "The Rimers of Eldritch" (1965) and even a touch of "Balm in Gilead" from the same year, in his 1999 two act drama, "Book of Days." Though his action is again set in the Missouri where the author grew up, Wilson's left the saga of the Talley family to return the melodrama of community politics. Fortunately, he's become an even better playwright, absorbing much from the canon of modern drama, including works like "An Enemy of the People." His title--taken from medieval public diaries--points toward a social concern. The show itself begins with a nod perhaps to Thorton Wilder when the ensemble, as town folk, introduce the audience to seemingly placid Dublin, another stand-in for Wilson's rejected birthplace, Lebanon, MO.

This play, which became a centerpiece of Signature Theatre's Wilson season in 2002, uses a cast of 12 "representative"--Wilson's designation--townspeople to reveal the almost baronial and church-ridden nature of their lives. It's no coincidence that twelve enumerates the Apostles--and a jury. Initially, the story revolves around Ruth Hoch played by Stacy Fischer in her best performance to date. Ruth's the bookkeeper at the only employer in town, a large cheese plant. When the community theatre hires a guest director for a production of Bernard Shaw's "Joan of Arc", she gets the part. Said director, Boyd Middleton is played with wry humor by Steven Barkhimer. Barkhimer like Fischer is a stalwart from the Publick Theatre's summer Shakespeare seasons. Ruth's winning audition is Juliet's balcony scene, displaying hidden talents peripheral to the story, but not her character. Fischer was an inspired bit of casting, displaying a range of acting many of her previous roles hasn't required.

Ruth and her husband, Len, played with a refreshing sense of Midwestern optimism by Sam Hurlbut work for leading citizen, Walt Bates, done with appropriate gravity by Ray McDavitt, remembered as Westmoreland from CSC's "Henry V" and from Ping Chong's "Reason" at the seemingly defunct Market Theater. When Walt, everyone's father-figure dies during a tornado, the apparent social stresses in town proceed to tear things apart. The major agent of this destruction is Walt's feckless son, James, done by Michael Kaye, seen last season in the world premiere of Laurent's "2 Lives" at the Lyric. James' one claim to fame is winning a state basketball championship his senior year in high school; he just passed the bar exam on his seventh try. His henchman is the plant's milk inspector Earl Hill, played by menacing Kevin Steinberg seen last spring in "Howie the Rookie." It doesn't take Ruth's suspicions at the end of Act 1 to realize these two are up to no good, though the ending is worthy of primetime.

If all this sounds a bit like "East Lynne" or some other 19th century family melodrama, there's more. James is married to the former head cheerleader, LuAnn, played by Lea Continaro, who manages the character's religious moments with some subtlety. The couple has no children and he's having an yet another affair with a hairdresser we never meet; she's pregnant. The hussy lives in nearby Springfield, where James is an aide to someone in the legislature. He eventually has his marriage to LuAnn annulled. The prospect of a grandchild brings his mother, Sharon, played straightforwardly by Kippy Goldfarb completely around to her only son's side, squelching questions about Walt's death. Central to the machinations, but unaware of that he's being used is handsome Doug Boyd-Flynn's Reverend Bobbie Groves, one of a long line of soulless preachers on the American stage. The force of small-town law is provided by imposing Floyd Richardson as Sheriff Conroy Atkins. For comic relief, and as practical moral compasses, the ensemble is rounded out by Beth Gotha as Len's Mom, a former flower-child now dean at a local Christian junior college and Jessica Healy as Ginger Reed, her younger counterpart who takes up with Boyd, the outsider. Many younger playwrights would have used only part of this story and concentrated on individual angst. Here the author rises to the Shavian challenge he set himself.

In the hands of a lesser author, or a team of TV writers, such a tale might have become laughable. Wilson manages to get a few cracks in, but he hews to his lifelong goal of afflicting the comfortable he sees at the core of our society. Using the experience of over three dozen very performable works, the author's crafted a piece drawing on memes of American theatre and his own plays, letting theatrical shorthand fill-in when needed. The Lyric, under director Spiro Veloudos has assembled a first-rate ensemble of local/regional talent, allowing the entire cast to give strong believable performances, switching from the realistic to the presentational with ease. The play's coda as another year marches by is nicely understated.

Their set by Janie E Howland is not as abstract as Beatty's almost antiseptic creation in New York, but somewhat more evocative, with a raised gallery at the back suggesting Southern decadence and providing a place apart when needed. Rita Sclavunos' costumes have a timeless quality which completes the image of a town more concerned with then than now. Karen Perlow's lighting keeps getting better and better, including an effective evocation of the tornado central to the action. No sound design is credited, though that was equally effective, especially Steven Bergman's original score which supports the Joan leitmotif. Veloudos and his team have once again lived up to their claim to being Boston's Off-Broadway. Even if that means following up this production with "Messugah-Nuns," replacing the previously-announced Durang libel on Mrs. Cratchit.

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