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Exceptional 'Days' hits its targets

March 26, 2004|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

The idiomatic voice of Lanford Wilson buoys "Book of Days," receiving its local premiere by Theatre Tribe in North Hollywood. This 1998 seriocomic reverie on America's religious-political devolution is a riveting achievement.

Its archetypal setting is Dublin, Mo., whose industrial center is the cheese factory owned by Walt Bates (James Handy). Walt, his gruffness concealing true morality, is more attuned to his loyal manager, Len Hoch (Nathan Brooks Burgess), than to his edgy, ambitious son, James (Thomas Burr).

The internecine tangle takes in Walt's wife and former "prettiest girl in town," Sharon (Pat Destro); Len's mother, ex-hippie Martha (Jenny O'Hara, who alternates with Sherri Lubov-Ripps); James' love-starved wife, LouAnn (Dawn Cochran); and Ruth (Mary Thornton), Len's wife and Walt's bookkeeper.

Guest big-city director Boyd Middleton (Jon Cellini, alternating with Jeff Kerr McGivney) and Dublin-based assistant Ginger (Corie Vickers) cast Ruth as star of the community theater revival of Shaw's "Saint Joan."

The Rev. Bobby Groves (Scott Ashby) targets the show, which, along with Walt's shooting death -- an accident, according to employee Earl (Scott Donovan) -- turns Ruth into the Maid of Dublin. Sheriff Atkins (Kyle Colerider-Krugh), like most of the township, dismisses her suspicions.

"Book of Days" has been likened to the works of Thornton Wilder in its direct address, vivid imagery and bucolic darkness. But Wilson's choral techniques, ripe wit and murder-mystery trappings form their own enthralling animal (albeit an overpopulated one, the main liability).

Stuart Rogers' brilliant staging features keen, lean designs by Barbara-Julie Miller (set), Peter Strauss (lighting), Courtney-Lynn Iverson (costumes) and David Kronmiller (sound). His cast is seamless, with Thornton's Ruth and Burgess' Len focusing a wholly invested troupe.

Near the ending, Ruth decries theocratic hypocrisy: "It hasn't changed. In 600 years! They were just hiding behind dogma and power and they still do." Indeed, and such unsettling pertinence distinguishes this idiosyncratic masterwork by a matchless American craftsman.


'Book of Days'

Where: Theatre Tribe at the El Portal, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.

Ends: April 24

Price: $15

Contact: (818) 754-2662

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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