Our town: New Theatre’s Book of Days

Set on a blank stage with a tree in the centre, New Theatre’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days could be forgiven for seeming, at first, to be rather empty. As Wilson’s play progresses and we come to know the small backwater town of Dublin, Missouri, we soon learn that it is anything but empty.
Wearing its influences on its sleeve, Book of Days was written in 2000, and owes much to Thornton Wilder’s seminal American play, Our Town, in tone and conceit. In Dublin, Missouri, where life revolves around the local cheese factory and the church, Ruth (book-keeper for the cheese factory) is chosen to play the lead role in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. But, like all small towns, there is something dark lurking beneath the surface and, after an unfortunate accident during a tornado, Ruth takes it upon herself to try and uncover the truth, as the worlds of the local community and the theatre combine.
Very much the story of a community uniting against an outside threat, the action is sparsely staged by director Elsie Edgerton-Till. Wilson uses the cast as a narratory ensemble, introducing, stage-managing and commenting on the action, and Edgerton-Till keeps them on the periphery of the stage for the two-and-a-half hours’ duration. It’s a simple device to keep the story’s disparate almost documentary-like structure flowing, but there comes a time when, late in Act Two, you wish it would just unfold by itself, without the intrusion and ushering of a narrator or ensemble-member.
Billed as a comedy, a tragedy and a murder-mystery, we certainly get the latter, but not so much the former. In fact, any humour or comedy inherent in Wilson’s script is almost down-played to the point of non-existence by Edgerton-Till and her cast, and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. The first time cheese-making is discussed, there is quite a serious conversation on the topic and, if you didn’t know better, you could almost think they were being rather tongue-in-cheek about the process; as the town’s involvement with cheese-making becomes more and more integral to the plot, or at least the plot’s unfolding, I find it very hard to believe that they could be that sincere about the whole process, even if their livelihoods did depend on it.
 The overt theatrical references are clever but become tired and obvious as the play unfolds. There are nods to Rainmaker and Carousel, the audition process and rehearsals, a certain indebtedness to Our Town, as well as a cleverly deployed enactment of an emotional breakdown, but the references to Shaw’s play and the motif made of the character of Jeanne d’Arc – a woman crusading against the narrow-mindedness of a church and an institution – are far too obvious and cliché to be effective.
The cast are all strong enough, with Alyssn Russell’s depiction of Luann Bates, the jealous and suspecting wife, being particularly strong. Simon Davey as her husband James is strong too, but often comes across as whiny and frustrated. Mark Langham brings a good-natured warmth and sturdiness to his Walt Bates, and his death at the end of Act One means he is missed in the second act. As Ruth the Joan-like figure, Kate Fraser is strong, but she comes across at times as rather desperate and distant. The main problem with the production is that it all happens at a rather constant pitch: characters barely change depth or grow, there is not much dramatic variation in scenes, pacing or development, and it all feels rather two-dimensional at times, like a diorama of a town as opposed to real people in a real town.
Book of Days is a very American play, inasmuch as it is about the distinctly American phenomenon of God-fearing paranoia and scepticism that comes from an outsider’s intrusion into their already close-knit community; while this is its Australian premiere, I wanted to know why this was produced now, what about the story made it worth producing. It has one foot in the twentieth century and one foot in the twenty-first, but is not sure whether it’s looking back with sadness at what has been lost, or whether it is looking forwards to what is and could be possible.

Theatre playlist: 35. The Wicked Flee, from True Grit, Carter Burwell

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