Theater archives

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.”

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.

The Congress, when he gets there, seesaws him between post-Stoker movie-icon analysis and the medieval history of the real Vlad Drakula, who, far from being a vampire, is now viewed by Romanians as a bulwark against incursions from the Muslim east. As an American suggesting that Vlad’s imperial line devolved into a family of Croatian smallholders, Drake is immediately put up by the media as a challenger to the exclusivity of the haughty professor hailed locally as Drakula’s last living descendant. The metaphoric minefield he has to walk turns real in Act II, when, reunited with his surviving relatives in Croatia, he has to cross a literal minefield to get to the ruins of his grandfather’s childhood home. As in Wilson’s play, the images shift their tone, taking new meanings from new contexts. Possible descent from Vlad the Impaler can change one’s views of gay life in Chelsea. Long for a solo, the piece wants pruning, and a few of the Serbo-Croat relatives require stronger acting definition, but these are small faults in a work so fresh in its mix of elements, in its discovery of hidden links between seemingly disparate topics. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me was an essence of things that had gone before; the more personalized Son of Drakula seems to open new doors and map new connections.

Connections keep not getting made in Hollywood Arms, adapted from Carol Burnett’s memoirs by herself and her late daughter Carrie Hamilton. Some of the disconnection’s in the situation: an embittered grandmother, an alcoholic mother with failed dreams, and a gifted daughter who breaks free but can’t shake her memories. Small-scale, sincere, and humane, the material doesn’t need a lot of dressing up. If Burnett and Hamilton weren’t the writers to give it full dramatic shape, they might at least have been left to do it simply and straightforwardly on an intimate stage, where its heartfelt plainspokenness could come through. Regrettably, stardom has other obligations. So we get a huge Broadway production, in a theater too large, on a set that dwarfs the actors, plus a lot of noise and hoke and what sounds like sitcom rewriting. And we get Harold Prince, in whose staging scenes just roll on, seemingly unpaced and going nowhere, with lots of dead air between the speeches.

Which is too bad, because along with the material’s inherent possibilities, Prince has at his disposal two wonderful actresses, Linda Lavin and Michele Pawk. Lavin’s dry comedy is very urban-Northeastern for an Arkansas woman, but her target-shooting delivery never misses, and a better director could undoubtedly have brought her all the way into this role. The statuesque Pawk, who can convey glamour and falling-down drunkenness in the same moment, deserves better-sustained writing as well as direction; she holds your interest even though you never get a clue what makes her tick. Both Lavin and Pawk sing beautifully, too; the evening’s worst cheat is the way it constantly starts them going in harmony and then fades out. If someone proposed an evening of Pawk and Lavin, on a bare stage, reading excerpts from Burnett’s memoirs and singing ’30s songs, I’d be all for it. The box office would be so good they’d probably have to transfer to the Cort, which I believe will soon be dark.