Forward in Reverse

On a nearly bare stage backed by a few rows of bleachers, Lanford Wilson's Book of Days begins sweetly and casually, with deceptive slowness, as if it were a high school pageant. The cast assembles in loose formation, tossing phrases at us, describing a fictional town called Dublin, Missouri, its seasons, industries, crops, churches, shops, statistics. When scenes finally start happening on the forestage, they're often interrupted for backstory, given variously as monologue, flashback, or comment from the sidelines. The shifts are fluid, letting the audience in on the conversation, a silent newcomer to the town's living rooms and porches. Our Town, you think, has slid into today's Southern Midwest, its serenely complacent Americanism unchallenged.

You'd be a fool to think so. Book of Days is a revisionist Our Town, a Grant Wood painting partially erased and repainted in contemporary hi-liter colors, more glaring and darker than Thornton Wilder's. The big mysteries that preoccupy Our Town—birth, love, death, the individual's place in society and in the universe—still loom over the action, but the petty concerns that were downplayed in Grovers Corners have grown into big screaming issues. Dublin's a hotbed of tension and bitterness over money, art, religion, law, education, and politics—everything that should be peripheral when the big issues are being contemplated. That, says Wilson, is what has become of the mythical American small town; that is what has become of us.

Dublin, unlike Grovers Corners, has a community theater, which when the action takes place is producing Saint Joan, and Wilson creates part of his dramatic tension by rubbing the two plays' contradictory sensibilities against each other. His characters struggle with Joan, critique it, are inspired by it. Chosen to play Joan, the bookkeeper of the local cheese plant finds the role bringing out the latent warrior in her. When the messy, sordid father-son conflict at the heart of Book of Days explodes, peppering the play with adultery, chicanery, and murder, she tries to rally the troops for justice. But Joan of Domrémy is as out of place in millennial Dublin as Emily Webb. Ruth, the bookkeeper, has personal motives like everyone else, and duly gets burned, though mercifully not in the literal sense. One of the chief virtues Wilson gives her is self-doubt: Quoting Shaw's Joan to a Christian hypocrite, she says, "Your counsel is of the Devil," but doesn't add, "and mine is of God."

David Drake in Son of Drakula: blood lines of thought
photo: Cary Conover
David Drake in Son of Drakula: blood lines of thought


Book of Days
By Lanford Wilson
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street

Son of Drakula
By David Drake
Dance Theater Workshop
219 West 19th Street

Hollywood Arms
By Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett
Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street

The telling omission, like the blunt fact given in direct address, is a favorite Wilson tactic here: Book of Days is at once elliptical and confrontational. Occasionally slipping into the shallows in the way it settles matters, it wins its way back by weaving such a believable web of circumstances that an occasional strand left dangling doesn't matter so much. Knowing his people thoroughly, and much else, Wilson is wonderfully canny at deploying his detailed data. His comic bits all turn out to have tragic underpinnings: Early in the evening, the heroine puzzles over the word crapulous; her husband, the plant manager, gets almost erotically aroused at the thought of making a really fine gourmet cheese. We chuckle at both, but not after a dispute over cheesemaking has brought on a murder, and a crapulous—it means "intemperate" or "debauched" —fellow is its cause. What most deeply drives people stays dark; Wilson's details illuminate, scarily, the way it pulls them in particular political or religious directions. The group narration evokes the majesty of the Ozarks; the characters' views of those who disagree more often evoke the opinions of John Ashcroft, like Wilson a Missouri native.

The easy flow of Wilson's complex storytelling, with its smooth shifts from close-up to panoramic vista, owes much to the equally at-ease staging by his longtime artistic partner, Marshall W. Mason. Though some of the action, particularly in the expository first half, moves too languidly, Mason, like his author, has both a strong overview and a sharp eye for detail. He knows when to counterpoint text with behavior, and when to set them in unison. As always, he gets largely excellent performances, with a white-hot glowing one from Miriam Shor as the not-quite-saintly bookkeeper at the story's molten core, and a stunning piece of surprise work—any explanation would spoil it—by newcomer Kelly McAndrew. Applause, too, for John Lee Beatty, who wins the award for best evocation of a tornado by a bare stage. He gets good help from Dennis Parichy's lighting, and from Chuck London and Stuart Werner's sound design. How great it is to have Circle Rep's old team working together again. Why don't they start a theater?

David Drake evokes the Ozarks, too, but the mountains that really preoccupy him in Son of Drakula are the Carpathians. I may be the world's biggest sucker—Barnumite, not vampiric—but I believed almost every word of Drake's new solo piece. That his grandfather was a Croatian-born ethnic Serb; that his real name is Drakula (Americanized but never legally changed by his mother after her divorce); that online research into his ancestry turned up a possible connection to Vlad "the Impaler," bringing him to the International Dracula Congress in Transylvania; even that he adores Ingrid Pitt because, as a child, he saw The Vampire Lovers at a drive-in—I buy it all. Partly, my belief comes from Drake's fetching modesty as a tale-spinner: He transforms into each of the people he encounters with a quiet unassertiveness that carries conviction. Partly, too, I buy his willingness to follow his winding tale rather than force it into an oversimplified straight line. On the road to discovering who he is, he runs into a host of issues, ideas, and experiences.

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