- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

Lanford Wilson's "Book of Days" is a mystery wrapped in a red-checked tablecloth, a homespun whodunit with a moral subtext about trust.
Mr. Wilson plays with the issues of integrity and appearances throughout this 1998 work, cunningly directed by Wendy C. Goldberg at Arena Stage. Repeatedly breaking the fourth wall between characters and audience, he challenges audience complacency its reliance on both surface impressions and theatrical conventions.
In one instance, Boyd Middleton (the excellent Mark Pinter), a Hollywood director in quiet Dublin, Mo., to direct a local production of George Bernard Shaw's "St. Joan," has his assistant, Ginger (Susan Lynskey), take over another cast member's big, emotional scene after the woman, the grieving wife of the town's business leader, complains that she would never talk like that.
The talking to the audience, the shifting perspectives and the examination of small-town America might put you in mind of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." But the nostalgic Mr. Wilder pined for simpler times when everybody knew the neighbors and love bloomed over an ice-cream soda at the corner drugstore. "Book of Days" is not likely to spark a mass exodus from big cities and suburbs anytime soon.
In Mr. Wilson's Dublin, people still steal away from work after lunch for a spot of fishing at a favorite place on the river, and the locals gab every morning at the cafe but a fundamentalist church rules local morals, and the town's main employer, a cheese factory, is about to be ruined by greed and a corporate buyout.
Pretty much everyone in Dublin harbors a secret. The Rev. Bobby Groves (David Fendig) is a well-read, slick man of the cloth who plays fast and loose with the concept of sin if it means more money for his church. His favorite parishioner, James Bates (Scott Janes), is the spoiled, smug son of the town's commercial leader, Walt (Jack Willis), the cheese factory's wealthy owner. Groves is more than willing to rethink his views on adultery and divorce to keep James' money and influence.
James was a creep to begin with, but after the mysterious death of his father, he reaches new lows. Before the beloved old coot is even cold, James has taken over the cheese factory, thrown over his nice wife, Lou Ann (Monette Magrath), for a sleazy beautician and thwarted the efforts of the factory manager, Len (Brian Keane), to develop a line of artisan cheeses.
Even the seemingly benign townspeople, such as Martha Hoch (Linda Stephens), a college professor with a scandalously hippy-dippy past, conceal potentially damaging secrets. You begin to wonder: Whom can you trust? Mr. Wilson's answer seems to be the forthright Ruth Hoch (Jennifer Mudge), the factory bookkeeper and an amateur actress. When Boyd casts her in the lead of "St. Joan," Ruth discovers in the Christian martyr's integrity and single-minded zeal just what she needs to take on Dublin and uncover what really happened to Walt.
With its play-within-a-play and its toying with time and perspective, "Book of Days" has a layered complexity. It dips in and out of events in scenes that might seem random but that ultimately form a clear pattern illustrating the conflict between conservatism and art. Art transforms remember Ruth's growth while playing Joan of Arc? while conservatism destroys those who would challenge its dogma.
But isn't this lesson itself a little facile and dare I say it dogmatic? Is all art automatically transformative and all conservatism intrinsically destructive? That seems a bit naive for someone of Mr. Wilson's intellect.
What keeps the play anchored is the honesty and heart of the characters. "Book of Days" would crumble into agitprop if it weren't for the innate goodness of such characters as Ruth, Martha, Len, Ginger and even Boyd, the big-time director who has made quite a few mistakes in his past.
Despite the shallow sermonette on small-town small-mindedness, Mr. Wilson still manages to capture the humanity flaws and all of the characters in Dublin, Mo. These are people who can say such things as, "He's cute as a button" without making you cringe average people who do heroic things, people whose greatness is squandered by pettiness.
The Arena cast, many of whom are newcomers to the local stage, are well up to the good grace of the characters. Miss Mudge is luminous and passionate without being too saintly a figure as Ruth, and she is ably matched by Mr. Keane's unshowoffy smartness as her husband, Len. Miss Stephens is a stitch as the town's resident free spirit, while Mr. Fendig and Miss Magrath add depth and shading to the stock roles of town preacher and priss, respectively.
At the play's end, a year has passed, and the town's bulwarks the church and the factory are still standing. But for how long? And what do they stand for?

WHAT: "Book of Days" by Lanford Wilson
WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, selected Tuesday and Wednesday matinees at noon. Through March 30.
TICKETS: $34 to $52 PHONE: 202/488-3300

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