RETURN OF THE NATIVE

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.

Wilson is more than a critic of the American status quo. He is a generous and humane writer, one whom the state of Missouri owes considerable gratitude for dismissing the convenient stereotypes of place. Wilson, who was born in Lebanon and grew up in Ozark, Mo., put Ozark characters on the New York stage that were not Papa Yoakam prattlin' on about his prize coon hound or his moonshine whiskey as he kept one eye out for the revenuer. The Lebanon of Wilson's imagination contains a citizenry that actually reads books, carries abstract ideas in their heads and speaks in complete sentences. Some members of that community are gay, living far from Manhattan or San Francisco. Wilson's Lebanon has among its population people who know something about the world and consider their place in it. They are all engaged in a common struggle to maintain their humanity against myriad obstacles that would demean it. This is true of Wilson's characters whether the setting is Lebanon, Mo., or the island of Manhattan — as it is true in real life.

"Things are not as they seem" is a pretext for much classic American drama. Long Day's Journey into Night, Death of a Salesman, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: The dramatic action of these plays is to rend the false veneer to uncover truths that have been secreted or denied. Book of Days belongs in this genre. The setting, Dublin, Mo., is described in the opening scene as "a clean, quiet, wide awake, prosperous town." Wilson says of the play, "It's all different from what it seems. Everything they say at the top about Dublin is true — and completely surface. None of that is true."

He says that Book of Days "started with me saying what would happen to an ordinary girl if she got the part of Joan of Arc. What would that do to her and her family and the town as she interacted with the town? I thought that was a real cool idea. Then I saw an ad for a new book called Playing Joan, and I went, "Oh shit, somebody's already done that.'"

Playing Joan turned out to be a collection of interviews with actresses who had played the French martyr. But Wilson's original inspiration slipped away until he was commissioned by the Purple Rose Theater to write a play set in the Midwest. "I was trying 14 different things, and none of them were going anywhere," says Wilson. "One day I was looking for something to read, and I saw on my "to read' shelf Playing Joan. And I went, "Oh, that would work for the Midwest. That would work really nicely in the Midwest.'"

In this "clean, quiet, wide awake, prosperous town," Ruth Hoch receives the title role in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, to be directed by Boyd Middleton, the one who lost two Tony Awards to "the same fucking hack" years ago, then lost something of himself in LA, and has come to Dublin to maybe rediscover those parts of himself again through the creation of art.

Ruth's husband, Len, manages the local cheese plant, and he holds aspirations of his own. He's trying to coax the plant's owner, Walt, who's made a dandy fortune selling his product to Kraft, to take a percentage of their supply and work toward producing gourmet cheeses — delicacies of distinction and character as opposed to the homogenized and bland product that Kraft processes.

Saint Joan, cheese, a small town in Missouri — Book of Days is a curious play to explicate. Include Walt's wayward son with political aspirations, fundamentalist religion and a tornado, and Wilson has concocted an odd mixture of elements. But Wilson's drama lives in the interaction of characters rather than in the devices of plot — although in terms of plot construction Book of Days could be Wilson's most intriguing play. An amusing story in which a small town's anomalies are explored transforms suddenly and violently. That tornado does arrive, literally and metaphorically. A character carries a gun, and, fulfilling one of the rules of theater, that gun goes off before the second act begins.

How Book of Days landed in St. Louis before moving to the East is "a true theater story," says Rep artistic director Steve Woolf. "It's all who you know."

In this case, Phil Monat — a lighting designer who had worked with Woolf on Galileo, Skylight and several other plays — was working with Mason in Arizona (Mason teaches at Arizona State) on a production of Long Day's Journey into Night.

Woolf was in New York City casting for the Rep when he received an e-mail from Monat, asking whether he'd be interested in opening the Rep's season with Lanford Wilson's new play. Mason and Wilson were looking for a fall slot before moving to Hartford — the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Steppenwolf in Chicago had expressed interest but couldn't work out the scheduling.

"Well, maybe," Woolf e-mailed back, "but what is it? What's it about?"

Monat had no idea, but soon Mason was on the phone to Woolf. "I said, "Jeez, this sounds exciting.'" The next day a courier was at Woolf's door with a copy of the script. "I read it thinking, "Now, these are really important people. Am I going to be lured by their importance?'

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