Missourian Lanford Wilson comes to the Rep to stage his new play, Book of Days, with longtime collaborator Marshall Mason. A look behind the scenes at the men who changed American theater.

 "Take your time," Marshall Mason cautions the actors before they begin rehearsing a scene from Book of Days, the new Lanford Wilson drama that opens the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' season. Director Mason perches in his chair, attentive, a broad, endearing smile across his face as the actors enter the performance space. He's dressed in a long-sleeved, button-down shirt with a high collar, the shirt a shiny brown to contrast with the darker, duller brown of his trousers. Mason's so nattily attired he could leave for an informal evening out after rehearsal without going home to change.

Across the room from Mason, at a long table with the assistant director and stage manager, sits playwright Lanford Wilson. As Mason sits up, alert and watchful, Wilson slumps in his chair like a weary bag of bones. He rests his forehead on the table, then raises his head, balancing it on his chin, to resume his observation of the scene. He lets out an anguished sigh, caused by, it seems (and the actors wish), nothing going on in the room. He looks around the table distractedly, picks up the morning paper and checks out the box scores. He opens the script and then closes it. He picks up the official Book of Days research manual (which includes info on Joan of Arc, the cheeses of England and tornadoes, among other things), glances at a few pages, then sets it down.

Mason and Wilson have been a collaborative team for more than 30 years. Their most fertile period came with the revered Circle Repertory Company, the off- Broadway New York mecca that Mason co-founded and directed, the company for which Wilson specifically wrote some of his most lasting work, including The Hot l Baltimore, The Mound Builders, Fifth of July, Talley's Folly and Talley & Son — all of which Mason directed. Circle Rep established an ensemble process that was at the very center of one of American theater's brief rebirths in the 1970s and '80s, attracting young talents both on and behind the stage who are still influencing theater and film in the '90s.

Marshall Mason and  Lanford Wilson: "They changed the face of American theater," says actress Suzanne Regan.
Jennifer Silverberg
Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson: "They changed the face of American theater," says actress Suzanne Regan.

This morning, though, Mason and Wilson seem direct opposites. Mason enters the rehearsal space like a dancer, on the balls of his feet and ready to move. Wilson strolls in woozy, strands of gray hair pushed forward uncombed, wearing a loose beige shirt and jeans that he will wear again the next day.

But as unprepared as Wilson may seem, he's keenly aware of what's going on before him. An actor delivers a bit of dialogue, and Wilson turns to the assistant director and quietly commands, "Get that line right." Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Rep, says Mason and Wilson are "detail to the nth degree — they remember everything." Actor Jonathan Hogan, who has worked with the two for more than 26 years, says there is a running gag about being precise with Wilson's language — an actor is fined $10 for adding a word, $5 for subtracting a word, $1 for each misplaced "uh" or "and."

"Take your time," Mason says again as the scene is repeated. Hogan — tall, tan and lean, with a crown of white hair — is playing the part of a director who, after success on the New York stage, and success with his first film and abject failure with his second in Hollywood, finds himself in a small Missouri town directing a production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. In one scene, he summarizes his history and refers to the "hack" to whom he lost a Tony Award, then says bitterly how he lost the award again "to the same fucking hack!"

The scene is run at least a half-dozen times that morning, and Wilson laughs with undiminished glee every time Hogan says the line: "I love the way he says that."

The question must be asked: Did he have any particular fucking hack in mind?

"Oh yeah," he nods. "Oh yeah."

The scene is run again, and Wilson observes a subtle change in Hogan's delivery. "During the rehearsal, he found the pride in the first movie," he points out. "He hadn't found it before. It's really exciting!" Wilson's morning doldrums are gone. This man in his 60s turns boyish, shifting in his chair with anticipation, his face gleaming.

Alan Campbell and Suzanne Regan run a scene. Book of Days has drawn a stellar cast. A new play by Lanford Wilson, directed by Marshall Mason with a crew that was known as the "Circle Rep A-Team" in the '70s and '80s (John Lee Beatty, set design; Laura Crow, costumes; Dennis Parichy, lights; Chuck London, sound), is a theater event. Campbell is one of three Tony nominees in the cast (Hogan and Dee Hoty are the others). The part of Ruth, the play's central protagonist, was written specifically for Regan, who premiered the role at the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Mich., the theater founded by another Circle Rep alum, Jeff Daniels, who starred in the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Campbell and Regan are accomplished performers who, even in this very early run-through, give a glimpse of the possibilities of the scene, but Mason admonishes again: "This is no time to be picking up cues. You need to break the scene apart, dig deep and see what the alternatives are. If I let you stay on the surface, you'll get bored with it. We need to explore, and breaking the barriers is how one explores."

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