The South Campus of the Florida State College of Jacksonville presented a four-performance run April 12-15 of Lanford Wilson’s “Book of Days” in the studio theatre at the Wilson Center for the Arts.
Ken McCulough, Professor of Theatre and head of the Florida State College’s Theatre Performance Program at the South Campus, always manages to present new and exciting plays each year. The final play of this school year is no exception and Mr. McCulough took on the directing chores as well.
While a groundbreaking playwright, the late Lanford Wilson’s work has not been done extensively in the North Florida area. We recall that some years ago, “The Hot L Baltimore” was done at Players and “Talley’s Folly” (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize) at Theatre Jacksonville.
“Book of Days” by Wilson debuted in 2002 and while not one of his best works, is nonetheless very interesting. The play is similar in structure to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” which was recently revived and was very successful at Theatre Jacksonville. It is similar in that it a bare-bones production with its simplicity. A table and a couple of chairs and benches are the only furniture. The set is centered around the outline of large church, which acts as a frame for a large video screen, and is surrounded by stylized silhouettes of trees that extend to the edges of the stage.
The residents of the fictional town of Dublin, Missouri enter and stand in a semi-circle. Each tells us something about the town. It has 4,750 people, two malls, one movie theatre and a large cheese manufacturing factory. The video screen in the middle of the set shows us where we are as the characters talk. Dublin is visually appealing, with an old-fashioned downtown, a well-attended church, a productive factory, and expansive green vistas. Each event or episode in the life of the town is preceded with the date it happened.
At the beginning, Ruth Hoch (Natalie Bogart), bookkeeper at the cheese factory, is auditioning for the lead in the community theatre’s production of “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw. Bogart brings an intensity to the role that mirrors that of the Shaw’s saint. Her husband Len (Ricardo Lastrapes), the factory manager, is portrayed as even-tempered, and has encouraged her to do the role. Boyd Middleton (Joshua Pierre) from Los Angeles is a guest director for the theatre, clearly an outsider, and he also encourages her to take the role.
Unfortunately, Dublin sits in a tornado alley. And when a tornado does roar through town, the screen displays its full force and fury, complete with sound effects. Now considering that in real life, most of the audience had likely watched news programs earlier about multiple tornados that hit the Midwest on the previous day, doing considerable damage, it was a bit unnerving. During the sudden storm, Walt Bates (Steven Pedigo), the likable owner of the cheese factory, is killed by gunfire in what is described as a hunting accident.
At this point, the play turns into a murder mystery. Our leading lady, Ruth, while talking with Sheriff Connie Atkins (Sunshine Townsend) examines the rifle with which Bates supposedly has accidently shot himself. Ruth discovers that the gun has not been fired and concludes he was shot and murdered by someone else.
Most of the folks in this Bible Belt town consider the incident closed. It was an accident, leave it at that. But Ruth, taking her Joan of Arc role to heart, pushes and probes and is vilified by the members of the church including the sanctimonious minister Reverend Groves (Jordan Wright). But In fact, there are a number of suspects among the townspeople.
How about Ginger Reed (Kelsey Clifford)? She is the assistant to the play’s director. Or Sharon Bates (Crystal Tucker), the cheese plant owner’s now very rich wife. Consider Walt’s unhappily married son James Bates (Devin Lloyd Pollard). Or LouAnn Bates (Holly Whittaker), his equally unhappy spouse. And Earl Hill (Scott Wiesinger) an inspector at the cheese plant who was supposedly on that hunting trip.
One person who is not considered a suspect is Martha Hoch, Ruth’s mother-in-law. The role was played by Kara Matthews, who was in the cast of TJ’s “Our Town” as Mrs. Gibbs. But then Martha is not your typical Christian College Dean, as she laces her everyday speech with profanity and relates colorful stories of her youthful indiscretions.
Since this is an after –the-fact review, we could reveal the outcome, but we are out of the habit of writing spoilers for any production. Who knows, if you did not see this production you may come across it again someday.
The play was an excellent choice for a student production. The large number of roles allows many students to be involved. The characters they play are older and all have distinctive personalities, thus giving the actors a change to stretch their acting talents in new situations. The acting was good, the action was well-paced and everyone moved well on stage and certainly projected well.
With the exception of Mr. Lastrapes and Ms. Bogart who are graduating, the rest of the cast will be back. We’re looking forward to another opportunity to experience DramaWorks innovative offerings.