Book of Days

Not Waiting Productions

at National Pastime Theater

Hamlet can be seen as a whodunit. A king dies. Somebody close to the king suspects foul play and investigates. Secrets are revealed. The perp is unmasked. And retribution follows–albeit after an epically agonized delay.

Even so, we don’t go see a production of Hamlet for the thrill of the chase. We go to get a glimpse of God’s law at work. Because, in a Shakespearean context, when a divinely ordained king is killed, more than just the political order is thrown out of whack: the whole universe is shattered. (Hence the wild and uncanny weather that always accompanies the Bard’s regicides.) The point of the show isn’t to ferret out the culprit but to watch how God inevitably picks up the pieces, discarding a few while assembling the rest into a new order. How He restores harmony. How He puts things right. Hamlet’s less a whodunit, really, than a kind of cosmic procedural. The kind designated by the word tragedy.

Likewise Book of Days. Set in mythical Dublin, Missouri–a “clean… quiet…wide-awake…prosperous town” with four bars, five churches, and 4,780 souls–this 1998 script by Lanford Wilson plays in many respects like a conventional murder mystery. Local mogul Walt Bates, owner of the cheese factory on which Dublin’s economy depends, seems to have been the victim of a freak duck-hunting accident; but his bookkeeper, Ruth Hoch, begins to suspect foul play. Inspired to boldness by her role as the title character in a community-theater production of Shaw’s Saint Joan, Ruth follows the clues to their source and makes her conclusions unambiguously clear despite the opposition of an array of vested interests.

But Book of Days is no more a whodunit at heart than Hamlet is. Wilson gives powerful indications that Walt is nothing less than a tragic king whose deadly usurpation constitutes an affront to the universe–even going so far as to embed the “hunting accident” in a wild and uncanny Shakespearean storm. The spiritual stakes are as unmistakable as old King Hamlet’s ghost. On one side is Ruth in her maid of Orleans mode: a friend of former hippies, theater folk, artisanal cheese makers, and other sensualists, speaking truth to power come what may. On the other is a collection of hypocritical fundamentalist preachers, tight-assed church ladies, corrupt cops, and weaselly sidekicks, all orbiting Walt’s Machiavellian son, James, who lacks only a hump to be Richard III. A world is in the balance. The dimensions of the conflict are full-out tragic.

But not the resolution. Wilson very pointedly refuses to complete the Shakespearean pattern. There is no retribution. No divine harmonics. No putting things right. No ifs, ands, or buts: evil is allowed to triumph. And the only reordering that takes place is one that ratifies that triumph, placing James in a position of wealth, power, and even honor while literally casting out the advocates of life, love, honesty, and real cheese.

The vision is as dark as it can possibly be. Forget Hamlet: Shakespeare’s God is dead, even in fiction. Forget Our Town and every other sentimental celebration of American small-town life: the so-called heartland is in thrall to Bible-thumping murderers and their accomplices, passive and otherwise. Forget the 60s: while you were turning on and tuning in, capital was busy buying you out. Forget all hope, in short, ye who enter here. One wants to reject this ugly little civics lesson, but the real-life parallels are just too vivid. Though Book of Days was written well before the 2000 election, it’s hard not to equate James with the current president–child of a powerful man, once known for his bad habits, who embraces a fundamentalist faith before assuming great power under ethically questionable circumstances. Exceedingly creepy.

And rendered even creepier by Wilson’s hypersincere treatment of the material. I’ve always thought there was a careful, plodding quality about Wilson’s plays. As fluent as he can sometimes be, he’s hardly poetic. He doesn’t go in for leaps or bold strokes–or irony, for that matter. In Book of Days, metaphorical equations–like that between Ruth and Saint Joan–are made in a forthright, workmanlike way, as if to say, OK, here’s the next thing you’ll need to know if you’re going to get my point. The approach is so unassumingly midwestern that the almost Manichaean menace the play conveys only really hits you in retrospect, after the last homey “Good night” and “Safe home” from the citizens of Dublin. But then it hits you hard. Book of Days may constitute the very best possible use of Wilson’s peculiar talents.

Unfortunately, it also constitutes a very poor use of the peculiar talents participating in this Not Waiting production. Though Brooke Allen has directed a competent show, featuring an admirably efficient set by Geoff Stock, so many of the cast members are so obviously miscast that you’ve got to wonder why the company decided to mount this play. The most egregious example is Steve Kimbrough, who gives Walt Bates a fey, winsome manner that utterly negates the gruff, tough character described in Wilson’s script. Robin Rieck represents another crucial miscalculation as Ruth–though I don’t suppose her problems are all her fault: she stares up at the ceiling so obsessively (and distractingly) throughout the play that the mannerism has to have been a directorial choice. On the other hand, John Zinn communicates a decency that’s at once boyish and strong as Ruth’s cheese-making husband, Len. And Lorraine Freund projects a combination of vulnerability and dignity that makes James’s mother endearing even as she displays exceptionally poor judgment regarding her son.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robin Reick and John Zinn.