Some theater exists purely for entertainment, while some aims for big messages. An example of the latter, Landford Wilson's Book of Days, sets out to expose a sickness in rural America, and whatever delight can be found in the play is inseparable from the discomfort of its message.
In Dublin, Missouri, where everyone knows everything about everybody, pillar-of-the-community and local cheese factory owner Walter Bates is killed during a terrible storm. Aspiring neighborhood actress Ruth Hoch, caught up in her local theater role as Joan of Arc, sets out to prove Walt's death was no accident. Book of Days tells the story of her search for justice in a small religious community deeply entangled with personal interests.
But this isn't exactly what you'd call a murder mystery, and the scope and shape of the story is as elusive as its heroine's idealism.
Book of Days has a lot going on under the surface and, in the production by University of Montana's School of Theatre and Dance, director Cohen Ambrose enhances every nuance with thoughtful and creative staging. From curtain speech to conclusion the traditional division between the actors and their characters is systematically deconstructed. The show starts explosively as characters get into costume right on set in front of the audience. During the performance, actors in flashbacks linger on in the shadows long after the normal timeline resumes. There is no backstage. Instead, a balcony of barstools looms over the floor, and when actors aren't in scene they sit in full view of the audience, watching the show along with us like a council of judges. All this deliberate transparency takes on a haunting irony as we watch a story about secrets and cover-ups gradually unfold.
As a story, Book of Days has trouble wielding its own weight. Wilson writes some interesting moments, such as when Boyd Middleton (Joshua Kelly) meta-theatrically takes on the role of the actual show's director and demands that his assistant (Alyssa Berdahl) "step in and do Mrs. Bates' breakdown." But tricks like these ultimately come off as orphaned rather than integral. When you've got 12 significant characters, each of whom need time for relationships and storylines, there's not a lot of room for anything beyond exposition. And that keeps us from fully connecting to anyone. The greater part of the first act, for instance, consists of mundane dialogue and plodding character development, kept lively by the passion of the cast—and one hell of a superbly designed thunder storm.
Despite the story's limitations, UM's production manages not to languish or drag. Book of Days picks up steam in act two, where the slow-boiling plot complicates into conflict. The actors finally get their hands dirty with poignant moments of frustration, rage and sorrow. There are several highlights that keep the show afloat: How Heidi Mudd as Louann Bates confronts her slimy narcissist womanizer of a husband, James Bates (Nathan Adkins), in a compelling display of weariness, with eyes that look like they haven't seen sleep in days. The way Benjamin Seratt nails his character, Len Hoch, a milquetoast who finally stands up for himself and his family. How Middleton and the perspiringly creepy Reverend Bobby Groves, played by Mason Wagner, fence over the nature of visionary experience. There's a chilling scene in an evangelical church where a member of the congregation collapses to the floor and begins speaking in tongues. A man with a chainsaw politely inquires of Ruth Hoch as to whether she's given her soul to Christ.
The production is a juggling act, sometimes innovative and elegant, occasionally top-heavy and unrefined. It's a challenging show, and the cast displays sterling endurance throughout. For me, though, the message cuts itself short. Book of Days does a great job of illustrating how "good ol' boy" networks from small communities run circles around justice. But stories that look to shine a cynical spotlight on the hypocrisy of rural American oligarchies are starting to taste overcooked here in 2014; not because this kind of thing isn't still happening, but because theater like Book of Days, potentially valuable in one generation for exposing problems, runs the risk of disintegrating into sanctimony in the next. I'm hungry for theater that gives us new insights.
Book of Days continues at the Masquer Theatre Thu., March 13, and Fri., March 14, at 7:30 PM and Sat., March 15, at 2 PM. $16.