IN THE HAPPY NEIGHBORHOOD OF LANFORD WILSON’S SMALL TOWN AMERICA IT IS NOT ALWAYS GOOD.
DMT STAGES ‘BOOK OF DAYS’ IT IS A MURDER MYSTERY THAT POINTS TO YOU AND ME
Douglas Morrisson Theatre’s current production of “BOOK OF DAYS” by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Lanford Wilson, is a clever small town mystery. The story which touches the classic small-town works as “Our Town” and “Under Milk Wood” features a talented cast and production team. Directed by Dale Albright who has assembled an accomplished cast to tell this page-turning mystery. Albright has wanted to direct this play for the past 10 years and says “(Wilson) has a way of portraying the worlds he creates that is equal parts accessible, challenging and illuminating with a truly American voice”. BOOK OF DAYS was commissioned, developed and produced by Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan., and won the American Theater Critics 1998 best play award.
We meet the town's folks in Dublin Missouri, a fictional town in the American Heartland, dominated by a Cheese Plant, a fundamentalist church, and a Community Theater. As the town players introduce each other they surround the stage and remind you of a classic greek chorus. The story as told by the cast begins as we learn about the death of the boss of the cheese factory, Walt Bates, played by the charismatic, Kendall Tieck. The cheese factory bookkeeper Ruth Hoch, played eagerly by Mylissa Malley, goes on a crusade to root out the truth amidst a flurry of petty jealousies, hypocrisies, greed and lies. Young Hoch auditions for the local theatre production that she hopes is a musical, but it is a drama; stammers through her audition that wins over the director. Wilson uses Shaw’s “Saint Joan” as its springboard and subtext for this tail.
The first act reveals that Dublin is dominated by a fundamentalist church, and that its community theater is producing a play directed by an out of towner, Boyd Middleton, played by local favorite Dan Wilson. Boyd’s successful Broadway and film career was hurt by tax problems and accusations of child abuse, that is used against him when the town folk start pointing fingers. Each cast member has their moment to tell the story of the murder and the town gossip. The discussions between Middleton and the town’s fundamentalist minister, played by the talented Tim Holt Jones, comments on Shaw’s religious views, and similarities are made between current trends and Ruth's connection to St Joan’s age. Ruth is married to Len, played by the passionate Matt Gunnison, who is trying to avoid selling the factory's product to Kraft. Gunnison and Malley Regan give the play’s most telling performances. The charming, Eve McElheney Tieck, plays Len’s mother, the dean of a junior college, who in her youth was stoned at Woodstock, senior Martha Hoch is clever with her tone in the story.
The DMT production is handsome and thoroughly professional. Director Albright keeps his company on stage throughout most of the performance, and uses the entire Douglas Morrisson theatre to tell the BOOK OF DAYS. He also added his greek chorus to sing haunting spirituals and hymns. Liliana Duque Pineiro’s set design provides a cleverly double level, elegant wooden set that takes a role in the action, and includes countless shelves in the design with blocks of cheese or bricks. The physical staging, with a minimum of props, is at times haunting, and the cast of 12 works well together. Allen Willner’s lighting design is dark at times for the storm moment, but the downstage action seems elegant with a touch of amber tones. Maggie Whitaker has a theme with her costume design being earth tones and yet a modern look and Kendall Trick, who is murdered in the first act, has the brightest look with a lively blue button shirt. Sound designer Theodore JH Hulsker sets the tone with clever walk in sounds and the mysterious gunshot that is the key to the murder.
The murdered Bate’s clueless wife, played by the notable Marianna Wolff, has to deal with her political ambitious son played by the outstanding Adam Niemann. Young Bate’s battered wife is played by the memorable, Laura Espino. The inept sheriff, played by the fumbling Nick Mandracchia, reminds one of the classic “Andy of Mayberry” one traffic light sherrif. The villain of the village is the fundamentalist preacher played by the proud Tim Holt Jones; he is canny and a highlight of the cast. The second act gets a bit more “Perry Mason” but all the usual suspects are pointed at until, of course, we discover it could have been you or me. The cast also includes, Caitlin Papp, Laura Wolff, Paul Stout; all exceptional in their various roles in the small town story. The mystery ends not with a Mayberry charm, but a dark message that will keep you thinking after the cast does their well deserved bows.
This stellar play marks the final production of Artistic Director, Susan E. Evans. It is sad to learn that Hayward Area Rec Department has cut the budget of DMT. Evans has brightened the stage at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre since 2011. Bringing countless professionals from other Bay Area stages to create wonderful performances including Musicals, important plays, new stage readings and the very inventive Playwrights CageMatch. The community has not quite filled the seats at DMT and that is discouraging since this theatre company is always getting better and has continued to present the classics and the best off new works. Evans has been an important, energised, creative, powerhouse at DMT; she will be missed. HARD does plan to keep the doors open for one more season, and if ticket sales improve DMT still has a future. I will continue to support this Hayward company and I encourage you to attend BOOK OF DAYS closing weekend.
Douglas Morrisson Theatre, Presents
BOOK OF DAYS
By Lanford Wilson,
Directed by Dale Albright,
Through: June 12,
Douglas Morrisson Theatre,
22311 North Third Street, Hayward,
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, one intermission,
Tickets: $29-$32; 510-881-6777,
photos by Claire Rice