I’d tell you to see Bad Habit Productions’ staging of Book of Days, but I saw it on its last weekend. Like an idiot. Because I could have seen it when it opened and then told all of you to see it.
The tricky part about being a critic is having to remind people that you’re a critic, which I do by using lots of critical, polysyllabic language. I talk about the pros and cons of a given piece of art, compare it to other works in the same genre, and try to close with something clever. It’s a lot of effort for something small and local, and it’s a ridiculous amount of effort for something I’m doing without pay. But it enhances my ability to appreciate art, particularly theater, which I think needs a lot of work.
And then something like Book of Days comes along and fucks that shit to hell.
I watched the entire play, all two hours and something minutes of it, with my mouth hanging open. The language is crisply real with the appropriate hint of Neil Simon timing to make it funny, or poignant, as needed. The show introduces us to a dozen characters in the first ten minutes and makes them all distinct and human. And the story directs all this effort, this soaring cathedral of tragedy and comedy and struggling human endeavor, over a nothing of a town in Missouri! Set in the modern day, on the doorstep of the 21st century; not in the period where it’s okay to be a nothing town. Add to all that a compelling plot – a will-they or won’t-they, a whodunnit, a play-within-a-play – and it’s an astonishing triumph.
But none of this works without good actors. There are several lines – especially when the town’s wealthiest man reminisces about his son’s basketball victories, or when the protagonist’s husband waxes enthusiastic about good cheese – that could be butchered by a mediocre actor. Or even by a good actor who tried too hard. Thankfully everything moves and flows in a way that keeps the audience engaged. Everyone’s good, but three players in particular deserve praise: Chuck Schwager’s Walt, the owner of the factory that keeps the town going, who’s both respected and hated at the same time, full of folksy wisdom but blind to the realities in front of him; Casey Preston as James, a rising political star in both the State assembly and the local church, who delivers his good ol’ boy attitude with the perfect pitch of knowing arrogance; and Anna Waldron as Ruth, who keeps heart as her world falls apart around her, drawing strength from mythology in order to cleave to what’s true.
“I feel bad about telling other people that they were ‘good’ in their shows,” I said after the play, “because I don’t have the right words for this.” It’s a fantastic effort with a fantastic piece of material. And it’s new to me, too. This new avenue has been opened up to me in Lanford Wilson’s work – a man who apparently wrote plays for four decades, which if they were half as good as this are better than most theater, and died two weeks ago. And not just a good play, but a good play done perfectly, with so much attention devoted to pacing and staging and timing and the details that bring characters to life. And it’s about a real town, filled with real people, in a real part of the world, even if it’s about the bookkeeper of a Missouri cheese factory playing Joan of Arc.
You can’t see the show now. But you can see whatever else BHP does, because they consistently pick good plays, cast good actors and then demand good performances out of them.