The pleasures of seeing a very new play are myriad, not the least of which is hearing lines spoken that few audiences have heard before and future audiences may never hear at all. In the case of Missouri bard Lanford Wilson's new production, Book of Days, premiering at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Act 1 is easily two-thirds of a masterpiece. The problem is Act 2.
One suspects that not even Wilson and his longtime collaborator, director Marshall W. Mason, are precisely sure what Book of Days is. It begins as a behind-the-scenes glimpse at a production of Shaw's Saint Joan by a small community theater in Dublin, Mo. (population 4,580). But before long we're watching (in no particular order) a meditation on the perils of resisting the ways of American big business; a drama of generational tension gone oedipal; a farce about the mutability of lust; and oh, yes a blandly television-ready murder mystery that doesn't really kick off until right before intermission, somewhat late in the evening.
Guileless Ruth Hoch (the name sounds like "truth" and throat-clearing) has hitherto starred in light musical fare like Carousel, yet renowned and mysteriously fugitive director Boyd Middleton has no qualms about casting her as his star. Shaw's Joan of Arc is a meddling superserious zealot, and wouldn'tcha know Ruth channels Joan's persona. There might be a terrific play in this conceit, by itself. But Wilson is a grand master of the Grand Hotel-style of playwrighting and can take a collection of wildly divergent character types, lodge them in an enclosed setting and let the ensemble chemistry combust. And there's ensemble aplenty in Book of Days.
Ruth (Suzanne Regan) is married to Len, the son of Martha, an unrepentant hippie-turned-lit-prof at the local Christian community college. Len is the manager of the local cheese factory whose dreams of high-profit cheddar are at first resisted and then embraced by curd magnate Walt Bates. Walt and wife Sharon have a charismatic son, Jim, a former basketball legend who has rejected the family business for lawyering. He is married to Ruth's cousin LouAnn but is romancing (and then some) a beautician in nearby Springfield, a fact that is known to virtually everyone in the town. (But we're supposed to believe the townsfolk still agree he'll make a dandy state rep.) And there's also Ginger, a moderately ambitious girltoy for the director; a menacing Boo Radley type; a bumbling but sincere sheriff; and even a tornado (a superlatively coherent onstage personality).
Set designer John Lee Beatty has kept the three-quarters stage virtually bare, save a backdrop of sauna-style wooden boards that open or close as windows and doors. The actors introduce scenes, either by title or date, and move benches to indicate that the setting has changed. The austere staging, plus the doubling-up of actorly duties, provides a provocative experimental- theater feel to the evening, which Wilson and Mason underutilize. The action generally moves forward except for one extraordinary sequence in which Walt's wife, Sharon, receives bad news. What we see is the scene replayed with Ginger taking the part of Sharon. In this brief but memorable transgressive theatrical moment, the character of Sharon (thoughtfully performed by Pamela Dunlap), metamorphoses from a Babbitt-ian consort to a spine-chilling country Jocasta.
But as they finish their scenes, no matter how fraught, the actors frequently crouch at the edge of the stage. Are they Greek chorus or shadowy judges at Joan's auto-da-fé? Are we supposed to pay attention to who's doing what when the murder supposedly took place? If so, director Mason isn't making it clear just what the point of particular actors' "sitting out" scenes is supposed to achieve.
Still, this show is well cast, and each performer gets his or her tour de force. Some of these are genuinely comic, as when Len (Matthew Rauch) waxes rhapsodic about provolone and five-year cheddar to his hardheaded boss, Walt (Jim Haynie). Other scenes are enjoyable if completely unbelievable, such as when director Boyd (Jonathan Hogan) and sinister Ozark evangelist the Rev. Bobby (John Lepard) debate the integrity of Shaw's work. But then, Dublin, Mo., is more like James Joyce's Dublin, where everyone is quirky and has deeply held aesthetic convictions.
When the St. Joan conceit is resumed (Ruth decides to play detective), Book of Days suddenly becomes a more conventional mystery, and characters lose focus and restate the obvious as they try to discourage her meddling. The sheriff (Tuck Milligan) notes: "She's in that play she sees enemies and schemes everywhere." And so do we far too often, which means that dramatic tension is jarringly and sadly absent. These threads of plot are skillfully but loosely woven in the completely satisfying first act. But as the second act unfolds, it's clear that the murder mystery (though dramatically the weakest) is the story that has won out. Yet even there Wilson seems reluctant to commit to it fully, so Act 2 frankly comes across as a series of trial endings. The net of plotlines tangles. For now.