Matthew Rauch and Miriam Shor in Book of Days
(Photo: Rahav Segev/Photopass.com)
Matthew Rauch and Miriam Shor in Book of Days
(Photo: Rahav Segev/Photopass.com)
The literary map of the United States is configured differently from the actual map, although new communities spring up at least as often on the former as on the latter. Glance at the literary map lately and you'll find Dublin, Missouri, which is where Lanford Wilson's Book of Days takes place. It's a familiar town located somewhere between Grover's Corners and Peyton Place -- the kind of burg where a sole industrialist has all of the money and power, not to mention a beautiful but frosty wife and a ne'er-do-well scion. Here, at first glance, the rest of the citizenry are God-fearing but, at second glance, don't fear God so much that they'll resist expediently twisting His words.

In an oratorio-like play that's continuously intriguing, sometimes despite itself, Wilson is counting on recognizability. He's saying that the people exposed in Chosen County (that's where he pointedly places this stateside Dublin) may think they've been selected but they're really no different from the populace of any contemporary American village or, indeed, any village that could have flourished and perished in history. While the natives may cluck about changes from one generation to the next, Wilson believes such adjustments are superficial; safety pins stuck in cheeks are the equivalent of bobby sox and saddle loafers, only more recently fashionable.

On a deeper level, Wilson wants to remind his audience that Dublin's attitudes toward the use, for instance, of religion to suppress freedom of expression are the same as they have been since time immemorial -- or, at least, since religions developed. That's why he gives his drama a title redolent of the Middle Ages, when books recording the passing of days became commonplace household items. And it's why, throughout the play, he invokes Joan of Arc, the 15th-century military campaigner for justice.

Wilson even plunks a contemporary Joan in the center of his work: Bookkeeper Ruth Hoch (Miriam Shor), of whom one character comments, "The thing is, she is Joan." The fellow making this observation is a director named Boyd Middleton (Jonathan Hogan), who's only recently come to Dublin to mount a production of George Bernard Shaw's 1923 play Saint Joan, written in response to the Maid of Orleans's 1920 canonization. The newcomer casts Ruth as Joan the instant he realizes that she has a natural affinity for the part. Within weeks, Ruth is living the role to the point where she's quoting Shaw to the locals and gadding about in a sweater (provided here by costume designer Laura Crow) that looks like chain mail.

"Your counsel is of the devil," Ruth says to the clever and pragmatic Reverend Bobby Graves (John Lepard), echoing the French Joan's remark to her inquisitors: "I know that your counsel is of the devil and that mine is of God." Ruth believes she's uncovered a murder in Dublin: Cheese factory proprietor Walt Bates (Jim Haynie), who has been an encouraging boss to Ruth's eager and enterprising husband, Len (Matthew Rauch), has perished in a hunting accident that occurred during a Missouri tornado. Knowing something about rifles and the hunting laws in the state, and also knowing that none of what she knows jibes with the announced facts, Ruth suspects that Walt was actually bumped off by Earl Hill (Boris McGiver), a dim and nervous cheese plant co-worker who was with the rich man at the time he appeared to have fallen on his $50,000, custom-made British rifle

Ruth causes problems for almost everyone in town as she stirs up questions about what had appeared to be a clear-cut accidental death. Many of these denizens have dirty little secrets that aren't so secret and can be used to intimidate them. Those with tainted pasts and presents include Ruth's mother-in-law Martha (Susan Kellermann), dean at the local community college and a former hippie with Woodstock on her C. V.; James Bates (Alan Campbell), the uncooperative heir to the cheese business and philandering husband of the sexually frustrated LouAnn (Hope Chernov); and Boyd, whose reasons for taking the Dublin directing job hint at something embarrassing left out of his résumé. In her crusading zeal, Ruth also wreaks havoc on her husband's career, since the progress he'd made on a smart scheme to increase the cheese factory's revenues is suddenly threatened. By the time Ruth has ranted so vociferously that she sets off a literal speaking-in-tongues church episode, the mystery of Walt's death is solved but life is overturned for just about everyone in one damaging way or another.

Alan Campbell and Nancy Snyderin Book of Days(Photo: Rahav Segev/Photopass.com)
Alan Campbell and Nancy Snyder
in Book of Days
(Photo: Rahav Segev/Photopass.com)
Wilson, of course, is a past master at revealing the complex humanity of heterogeneous or homogenous crowds. Once he's stripped away the layers of his dramatic onions, nothing can be left but the tears. He's still at it, demanding attention for a play that longtime collaborator Marshall W. Mason has directed with the understated understanding he's consistently brought to bear on Wilson's work. As Book of Days unfolds on John Lee Beatty's simple and adaptable, bleached wood bleachers set, the characters are utterly believable. That includes the sexually charged Ginger Reed (Kelly McAndrew), who's assisting Boyd in more ways than one on the Shaw assignment; Sheriff Conroy Atkins (Tuck Milligan), who is more interested in policing thought than actual felonies; and Sharon Bates (Nancy Snyder), Walt's acquiescing wife and then widow. Every word these people exchange rings with quiet truth.

A summary of Wilson's play may sound as if he's delivering a twice-told tale. He is -- and it's a yarn full of holes. For instance, why does it fall to Ruth to discover an important fact about the rifle that Walt supposedly discharged during the terrifying tornado that lighting designer Dennis Parichy and sound designers Chuck London and Stewart Werner have so convincingly whipped up? Wouldn't Sheriff Atkins have routinely checked out the implicated firearm? (Unless he'd been bought off.) Ruth might have traits in common with Joan of Arc, but does that mean she could overcome the little training she has had and create a Saint Joan that could put Ingrid Bergman and Julie Harris to shame? Moreover, is it realistic to think that Dublin was carefree, model city until the events covered here occurred? The citizens sure seem to have that impression of themselves, sitting on stage and beatifically smiling while others of their number act out the earlier scenes.

It's a testament to Wilson's skills that, though he has created an unsatisfying mystery here, that fact seems of secondary importance. His perceptions about human nature are effective recompense for the play's drawbacks. So is the proficient cast -- whose members, incidentally, are outfitted by costume designer Crow to look like the best-dressed small-town population in the land. Most prominent among the polished players is Miriam Shor as Ruth/Joan, but maybe that's only because she's got the biggest part(s). Her natural thesping is matched by everyone else as they mill around her, chatting and recoiling and rearranging benches on Beatty's basketball-court-like set. Put Book of Days on your calendar; you won't be disappointed that you made the date.