`Book of Days' misses the twist of `Saint Joan'

Cast brings charm to one-dimensional characters in play

Theater Reviews

March 05, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The fictional town of Dublin, Mo., has a hip-high, portico-columned "mansion," a dollhouse-sized church with stained-glass windows and a steeple, and a courthouse shaded by a historic potted plant.

This mock-perfect miniature of a Southern town designed by Michael Brown cheerily suggests that human nature is nobler than the behemoth piles of bricks and mortar and stone that we erect, mucking up the horizon and blocking the view.

Unfortunately, playwright Lanford Wilson's Book of Days is not as clear-sighted as these happy omens might portend.

Wilson seems to have envisioned his play as a modern updating of G.B. Shaw's great Saint Joan. Book of Days simultaneously is a murder mystery, a parable of small-town ways and a play-within-a-play.

In place of the warrior maiden, Wilson envisions his truth-teller as Ruth, the bookkeeper for the cheese factory that is the town's major employer. Ruth (played with appealing verve by Jennifer Mudge) can't keep her suspicions to herself when her boss dies in what supposedly was a hunting accident.

It's fun to tease out the parallels between the two works: in the place of the deposed Dauphin, who believed in Joan and armed her, Wilson gives us a down-on-his-luck director who casts the untried Ruth in the title role of Saint Joan.

In place of the Inquisitor who sends Joan to her death, Wilson posits the Rev. Groves, a charismatic religious leader more interested in acquiring political power than in rooting out sin.

But Wilson misses the sly joke in Shaw's masterwork: from the perspective of a religious bureaucrat, saints are most useful once they're safely dead and can inspire the faithful without raising a ruckus. Living saints can be a mite disruptive. You never know when they're going to go off on some cockeyed whim and tell people to listen to their consciences, and not the teachings of the church.

Shaw never condescended to his villains. He respected them enough to make them fight for something that they believed in that was larger than venal self-interest, even if it included it.

Wilson's villains are so one-dimensional that the audience is aware that it is being positioned to dislike these characters. During a recent matinee, Groves counseled a wife complaining of her husband's infidelity to "think about how you can be a better partner to your husband." The audience actually hissed.

Book of Days is not without its charms, and in this production, many of them are supplied by the cast.

Monette Magrath may look the part of a former cheerleader-turned-socialite wife in her pastel sheaths and white gloves. But with one determined thrust of her chin, Magrath conveys her character's outrage at being asked to swallow lies.

As Ruth's husband, Len, Brian Keane is unaffected and sincere, especially when delivering an impassioned paean to the art of cheese-making.

And David Fendig makes the most of a limited character, portraying much of the magnetism that makes the Rev. Groves so successful - and dangerous.

It is no accident that the play's climax occurs when Ruth (wielding Joan's sword, in case we miss the point) confronts Groves and the congregation with her suspicions about the murder during a Sunday service, with disastrous results.

But, wait. Something curious has happened. Aren't those stained-glass windows dangling high above the stage? The townspeople must be inside the church - the very same building that came up to their waists when the play began.

Did it get larger, or did they shrink?

Book of Days

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees on selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays at noon, Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through March 30.

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

Tickets: $34-$52

Information: 202-488-3300

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