God’s Town: A Review of New Theatre’s Book of Days
Book of Days (2000) is one of the last plays Langford Wilson wrote. During the 1960s he was instrumental in the founding of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, but he also had great success on the main stage, culminating in 1980 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, Fifth of July.
Book of Days, however, takes in several dramatic traditions – minimalism, Epic Theatre and a nod or two to Shaw’s Saint Joan. Yet, it is Thornton Wilder, and Our Town, that Book of Days seems to be most aligned with. The play opens just as Our Town does, with the residents of Dublin, Missouri giving the audience the town’s statistics. For a while the play focuses on the minutiae of the townsfolk’s lives. We learn that Ruth is slated to perform in a production of Shaw’s Saint Joan. Her husband, Len, is a cheese aficionado who has convinced his boss, Walt, to set some of their stock aside to age vintage cheddar. Halfway through the act a tornado hits the town and Walt is killed whilst out duck hunting with another of his employees, Earl.
At this point there is a shift in tone and the play becomes a bit more like an Agatha Christie who-done-it. Earl claims it was a tragic accident, but parts of his story don’t quite stack up for Ruth. Although she meets a lot of resistance from the very conservative, ‘God fearing’ residents of Dublin, she sets about trying to solve the mystery on her own.
In her director’s note Elsie Edgerton-Till states that the play prompts us to think about moral responsibility. Almost every character in the play faces some sort of moral dilemma. Whether it’s a question of statutory rape, adultery, sleeping with a student or murder, most are engaged with something ‘questionable’. Those who aren’t, face the problem of how to respond to such indiscretions. It is here that we find the town’s reverend, a powerful figure unquestionably followed by many. This Christian man is more than willing however, to push aside glaring lapses so long as his authority remains absolute. Ruth becomes the only character willing to follow her moral compass. However, just like Joan of Arc, there are consequences that follow.
This was a large cast, and from them, the script demanded complex rhythms and flawless chemistry. They certainly made a good fist of it. However, one feels that perhaps further time to settle in would have produced a stronger ‘ensemble’ effect. There was also a tendency to swallow words (a consequence of the Missouri dialect). Slightly softening accents would easily counter this. The stand outs for the evening were Gael Ballantyne and Jeannie Gee as Martha (Len’s mother) and Sharon (Walt’s wife), respectively. Both women were effective in their simplicity. Their characters were clearly delimitated, authentically voiced and performed with impressive clarity. Ballantyne borrowed from Pearl in the Golden Girls, and Gee similarly drew from ‘southern comfort’, though obviously more maternal. Each actress approached the stage with a calm demeanour, which, consequently, produced a fine balance of comedy and pathos.
Amongst the younger actors, Simon Davey took great strides as James, our high risk, high reward chauvinist. Davey was the classically patronising, slimy lawyer, which he performed with a marvellous stage presence. He was sharp in his comedy and was as ruthless as his character was callous. Also amongst the younger players was the play’s ‘main’ couple – Ruth, played by Kate Fraser, and Len, played by Alex Norton. Both had good chemistry together, and they could certainly deliver a comic line. Yet their performances, at times, felt removed from the Agatha Christie-like stylings of the cast. Norton especially felt as if he had walked straight out of Little Shop of Horrors, channeling the incredibly sweet and endearing Seymour. Whilst this was all well and good, their styles were out of step with the rest of the piece, at best lacking in pace, and at worst jarring the piece’s synchronicity.
Amongst the rest of the cast, solid performances came from Alyssan Russell as Luann, James’ forcibly sterile wife; Amelia Cuninghame as Ginger, theatre assistant and suspected town hussy; Mark Langham as Walt, James’ father and murder victim with Geoff Sirmai providing some great comic relief as Boyd, the Bronx director from outta town. Brendan Miles (Earl), Kyle Walmsley (Reverend Bobby) and Joel Spreadborough (Sheriff Conroy) added flavour to the ensemble.
This script has a very long first act. In fact, one might almost say it has a superfluous first act. While some set up is always necessary, it’s never a good sign when you’re 45 minutes into a play and still don’t know what it’s about. The real plot, Walt’s murder, isn’t introduced until the end of the first half. Additionally, many themes go completely unintroduced until mid-way through – for example, the strong religious motif seemingly comes out of left field in the second act. On top of which, much of the play’s message is handled in a very heavy handed way.
This is an interesting piece of theatre. The staging and set design, whilst basic, suits its needs; the transitions are quick and unobtrusive. Unfortunately, the script drags in sections, and with a run time of two and a half hours, one walks out of this production feeling that at half the length it would have been a much tighter and better focused piece.
Book of Days is playing at the New Theatre until the New Theatre until the 9th of August. For more information see: http://newtheatre.org.au/whats-on/season-2014/book-of-days/