Saturday night. About 8 o’clock. Sitting on the front row at Chamberlayne Actor’s Theater ready to watch Lanford Wilson’s “Book of Days.” I didn’t know anyone in the cast; I had come to hear Mr. Wilson’s words. Thirty years ago I saw his play “Burn This” in New York and I have never forgotten the crystalline prose nor action, the emotions, nor the push to take a cold hard look at not only yourself but your fellow man. The late Mr. Wilson certainly deserved his 1980s Pulitzer for “Talley’s Folly” as well as other accolades too long to list here. Although he left behind 17 full length plays and 30 short ones and I can listen to him on YouTube, his voice and writing is sorely missed. My husband, an actor who serves on Chamberlayne’s play reading committee and chose this play, thinks Wilson will be remembered as one of the best dramatic literary writers of the late twentieth century and deserves to be in the same class as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
When I asked Granville why he picked “Book of Days,” he explained that he reads about forty plays a year for CAT and therefore spends evenings with an awful lot of bad writing: comedies that aren’t funny; plays with uninteresting or unlikeable characters and “Book of Days’ just captured his attention like a good novel he couldn’t put down, calling it one of the best plays he’d read in decades. Moreover, Granville was very familiar with Wilson’s work having performed in “The Hot L Baltimore” at William and Mary – he played Mr. Katz, manager of a seedy hotel. (!)
“Book of Days” takes us right back to small town Missouri, Dublin to be exact. (Mr. Wilson certainly wrote about what he knew; he grew up in Lebanon, Mo. and after his parents divorced, he went off to live in Springfield with mom.) The play opens with a large cast filing out, Greek chorus style, and describing village life; the story is centered around the goings-on of a cheese plant, a church and a community theater which sounds perfectly dreadful but in Wilson’s deft hand, he is able to place a watercolor of small town life on an easel and tell a morality tale – and don’t forget the murder mystery part because, yes, dunh, dunh, dunhhh…(the music crescendos), one dark and stormy night, a lead character is bumped off. But why? Who did it? And isn’t that preacher kind of creepy and self-serving? In fact a lot of people in the cast are, well, liars and manipulators (or lying to themselves), and yet they still go to church on Sunday. A lot of thank you Ma’ams and don’t forget to tip your hat.
The beauty of Wilson’s writing is he doesn’t teaspoon the audience. Sometimes you wonder about characters’ true motives and he manages to mix up the good and bad; nothing is black and white. There are pieces of evil in so many hearts. This play is about the grey and the obfuscation makes it unsettling. But not depressing. There is plenty of humor – not to mention the most gorgeous prose. And you don’t know what is coming next in this “Mayberry R.F.D.” on steroids. In spite of the bleakness, and in this case a murder and a rattled town, Wilson always manages to weave the small white line of hope, throughout ‘til the end. He writes of the dark griffin of human emotion and with the dark, there will always be light and good will prevail. One hopes.
Chamberlayne Actors’ Theatre
319 North Wilkinson Road
Richmond, VA 23227
Book of Days
January 23-February 7, 2015