Photo by Bob Seary
New Theatre presents BOOK OF DAYS by Lanford Wilson at the New Theatre., Newtown. 8 July - 9 August.
BOOK OF DAYS (2000) is a late play, the second to last, by American writer, Lanford Wilson. In Sydney, most of you will probably only know his work, BURN THIS (1986), seen at the Sydney Theatre Company with Richard Roxbrough, although other works of his: BALM IN GILEAD (1965); THE HOT L BALTIMORE (1973); FIFTH OF JULY (1978); TALLEY'S FOLLY (1975) have certainly featured at local Drama schools, the latter, at the Ensemble theatre, too, I remember. BOOK OF DAYS is a gentle 'masterpiece' from an American writer of some great beauty, in the twilight of his creativity. Lanford Wilson, at the famous Caffe Cino in New York, was one of the playwrights of the nineteen sixties that established what was to become the Off-off-Broadway theatre movement. John Guare, Sam Shepard and Edward Albee were other artists working beside him. His plays spanned the next four decades, trailing honours and prizes. He died in March, 2011.
For me, what is remarkable and admirable, in this work, is the integration of Lanford Wilson's stylistic heritage, owing much to the "method' approach to work in the American theatre using the Stanislavsky theories. The setting in a small town, Dublin, Missouri, harks back to the Thornton Wilder Grovenor's Corner, and the stylistic liberties and inventions that shape that work is easily recognisable and lovingly engaged, embroidered with, here. The characters are simple people with whom we can identify with little difficulty and come to care for, one way or the other. Funny, sad, frustrated, deceived, hilarious, devious, loved and loving, in fact, with all the traits of that which makes us human.
However, this play of the new century, the 21st, the new millennium, is more than just a gentle, nostalgic recall of events and people in the month of June in small town America. For, it is not nostalgia that Mr Wilson is principally concerned with, but rather, the insidious, pernicious corruption of the political practices of our guiding institutions of the present on our basic human principles, that have up till now, supposedly (uncritically), shaped our civilized moralities.
We meet the principal citizens of this small community, dominated by the richest man in town, Walt Bates, and his family; of the family of his employee at the cheese factory, Len Hoch, and another employee, Earl Hill; of the local religious leader, Reverend Bobby Graves and the Law and Order representative, Sheriff Conroy Atkins, and others. Mr Wilson introduces into the events of the play, a rehearsal of the G.B. Shaw play SAINT JOAN, at the local amateur theatre, as a parallel thematic tool to unfold what becomes the exposure of a local murder (a la Agatha Chrisitie) through the urgent 'inspired' convictions of an awakened citizen, Ruth Hoch, who must pursue her 'voices' to define the difference between right and wrong, even, to an unpleasant conclusion for herself and her family - the fate of many a 'whistleblower', contemporary or otherwise. It is a smooth and delicate sleight of hand, that Mr Wilson employs, which finally encompasses the greater observation of a disenchantment with the moral state of his nation - the United States of America, where the good are comatose or duped, and the bad, taking advantage of most of us, are rewarded. It is, of course, not a phenomenon that is exclusively American, but one of universal clamouring - hello, Australia.
BOOK OF DAYS is beguilingly deceptive and we become, unsuspectingly, woven into the simple needs and recognition of the rights and wrongs of this town, so that our identification is one of palpable shock when we realise: there but for the grace of god, go I. AM I! The play suggests that, maybe, the best road to survival is to close your eyes and let sleeping dogs lie. It provokes the question that fellow writer, Kenneth Lonergan, asks in LOBBY HERO, when two of his characters conclude that play:
Dawn : ... How are you supposed to know if you're right and everybody else is wrong, or if you're just wreckin' your own chances?
Jeff: I wouldn't know. I never tried to do anything before.In BOOK OF DAYS, Ruth Hoch, the wife of the cheese maker and Saint Joan in the local little theatre production in Dublin Missouri, decides to do something. The consequences in , Dublin, Missouri, unfortunately, are not surprising to us too, in this country, in this day and age.
Both plays ask us to consider and beware the fudges we make to our moral consciences. How often can we cross the line of our own civilised beliefs? Just how far can one cheat before the whole system will collapse upon us?
William (from LOBBY HERO): ... My whole life I've told the truth, I always tell the truth. Because I believe in that, OK? You don't worry about if the world is bad or good, because I know Goddam that it is bad. You just do your best and let the chips fall where they may ...This production of BOOK OF DAYS at the New Theatre led by Director, Elsie Edgerton-Till is finely calibrated - work from a relatively new Director of note, with an exquisite painterly eye for staging. The Design team: Georgia Hopkins on Set - beautiful AND simple - is enhanced by a very sophisticated and supportively sensitive lighting design by Alex Berlage; with an apt and flawless set of costume inspirations by Jacqui Schofield. This company of 12 actors has been moulded into an easy ensemble. All are equal and all capture the style with a presence and understanding of the world of the play with great confidence. Kate Fraser, Alex Norton, Geoff Sirmai, Amelia Cuninghame, Gael Ballantyne, Mark Langham, Jeannie Gee, Simon Davey, Alyssan Russell, Brendan Miles, Kyle Walmsley and Joel Spreadborough.
I recommend a visit.
Both, BOOK OF DAYS, and the play LOBBY HERO, ought to be seen, read, by our writers, young or old, I'm afraid to dare, as an object lesson in how to tell a story of social purpose that is also a superior entertainment. Having seen the STC's MOJO, one wonders just how widely that company reads, and how do they choose their repertoire for Sydney audiences, when both these plays are around to be found by the Independent Companies. Although, to be fair, the STC are about to present THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble. Let's wait and see what they have made of that remarkable new British play.