Review: In Fresno State’s strong ‘Book of Days,’ a small town is always watching
When something tense or gossip-worthy is happening in Lanford Wilson’s “Book of Days,” the residents of tiny Dublin, Missouri, have a disconcerting habit of gliding onto the stage, as silent as ghosts, and simply watching. A father having a blistering argument with his son? Several neighbors are in the background observing without comment. A pastor in private admonishing a parishioner? Again, people are perched on the periphery, bland expressions on their composed faces, taking it all in.
While watching the very fine Fresno State production of this brash and rattling play, it struck me that these “watchers” could be thought of as the brick-and-mortar — aka old-fashioned — version of the internet and the tangled way that it brings people together. Our digital lives aren’t as geographically oriented as those of the small-town characters depicted here, but today’s online world can have that similar feeling of eyes everywhere, of waiting for conflict and slip-ups, of banking on the inevitable frailty of human behavior to spice up the average person’s everyday existence.
In “Book of Days,” the stories of a dozen characters are tangled into a narrative that at first seems sprawling but eventually comes into tighter focus.
Ruth (Evangelia Pappas) is a bookkeeper for the local cheese factory who gets cast as the title role in a community theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” about Joan of Arc. She’s married to the bright and ambitious Len (Erik Olson), manager of the plant, who wants to shift production into artisan cheeses instead of the banal, mass-market variety. We meet the owner of the plant, Walt (Diego Barba), and his son, James (Jimmy Haynie), a newly minted lawyer with political ambitions. He doesn’t like fancy cheese. (He doesn’t like cheese, period. Which doesn’t bode well for a manager trying to shake things up.)
Besides the theater and the factory, the town’s third institution serving as a focal point for the play is a local evangelical church. It’s led by a pastor (Andrew Trevino) determined to preserve his secular influence in the community.
Each of these three centers of power can have their own peculiar hold on the people who are part of them. It’s when they intersect that things get even more complicated.
I was moved by this production and impressed by the young cast’s ability to capture the breadth and personality of a benevolent and bitter little town. Director J. Daniel Herring brings a brisk precision to the storyline’s tangle of narratives, offering a sense not only of order but introspection. The acting can be uneven in a few instances, as in any university production, and the accents very uneven, but there are some finely etched emotional moments. And the production elements, from Thomas Barile’s lights to Krystal Smith’s costumes, have a crisp and accomplished feel.
There are a number of fine performances. As Ruth, Pappas, brings a clear, no-nonsense directness to the role, but then she suddenly launches into moments (including her “Joan” audition and a riveting scene in which we learn that Ruth identifies so strongly with Joan that she’s finding it difficult to separate reality from the world of the stage) that suggest depth and fire. Alyssa Benitez, as Ruth’s mom, excels with a hippy-dippy, former-Flower-Power jauntiness. Arium Andrews, as the wife of the cheese plant owner infuses her character with a religiosity that feels domineering. Joshua Taber and Madeline Rydberg are strong, he as the visiting community-theater director and she as his semi-scandalous assistant director. Jimmy Haynie, as the non-cheese-loving son, gives us a man who seems both indolent and deeply cunning.
And this is one of my favorite performances I’ve seen from Fresno State theater veteran Kai DiMino. His character, Earl, isn’t very smart, always a scary quality in a malicious man. (At one point, during a scene in church, Earl offers a sneer so ugly that it sears.) But beneath the contempt, I also found more texture to Earl, a crumbled self-confidence, that suggests anxiety about a rapidly changing world. Who knew that the conflict between art (fancy artisan cheeses) and commerce (American cheese slices) could be so confusing and threatening?
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For me, the best thing about “Book of Days” is the way Wilson’s script continually surprises. Yes, there is a suspicious death in the play, but this is no average murder mystery. (I didn’t figure out the entire story until the final minutes, and it’s pretty rare for a play to do that for me.) Wilson offers a mostly chronological narrative, but there are a few time blips that tips things off-kilter. And there are a few moments when the architecture of the play itself seems to crack, with actors getting so caught up in the action that their characters subsume them.
One such moment comes when Andrews, as Sharon (the wife and mother), is distraught over being depicted as a user of profane language, and she has what you could call a meta breakdown. The line between actor and character blurs and then vanishes altogether for a brief time, with another character — or is the actor playing her — stepping in to deliver the original “dialogue.” Theater so intense that it warps the rules of the stage? Sounds like a great evening to me.