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.

"But no," he affirms. "This is a great play. This is a fabulous story. It's really compelling. I keep turning the page wanting to know what's going to happen next. I think the construction is brilliant. I think it's one of Lanford's best plays ever."

Woolf probably isn't the most objective critical source. However, Book of Days is already receiving substantial notice. The Purple Rose production of Book of Days received the American Theater Critics Association's New Play award for the best play produced outside New York City. Lawrence DeVine of the Detroit Free Press began his review: "Lanford Wilson owns southern Missouri. On the page, he's God there, creating whole Wilson universes out of Ozark towns like the burbling one in his extraordinary new play, Book of Days." Among the cast and crew, there is a rare, anticipatory excitement about the play. These are heady days for the Rep: To be considered in the same league as the Guthrie and Steppenwolf is to have moved beyond regional attention; to help introduce what may be a great American play by one of its greatest playwrights could elevate the reputation of the Rep for years to come.

Woolf tells another anecdote about the reaction the play is receiving. When Jim Haynie auditioned for the role of the avuncular Walt, Woolf says, "He walked in and it was like he walked right out of the Ozarks. He walked in and sat down and said, "I'm just gonna say this — this is the most important play I've read in years.'"

That assessment isn't wholly unanimous, however. Boris McGiver, who plays dairy inspector Earl, admits that he wasn't immediately taken with the script but says his agent was.

Woolf says that in auditions Mason and Wilson displayed the same patience and care for actors in that anxiety-filled situation as they do in rehearsal. "Socially, I saw some of the actors in LA we'd auditioned, and they said how wonderful it was for this major director to say, "Now, just relax and take your time.' It's a phrase you don't hear in LA — where someone actually took the time to talk to them about a part. They were quite taken with that. Marshall's love of the actor is quite clear, as is Lanford's. They were quite genuine in the auditions — answering questions and caring about the information they got. There was no arrogance, no "We're famous. You're not.' None of that.

"These guys have been doing it for 30-some years, and they are as hard-bitten pros as you're going to find, and they are not cynical in the least. What they do is love the live theater, and that's what you see."

Take your time.

"It's my most common direction," says Mason. Many years have passed since he and Wilson, according to Jonathan Hogan, looked almost identical with flowing shoulder-length hair; years since, as Hogan's wife remembers it, Mason strolled the Village in a long velvet cape.

Today the hair is thinning, gray and neatly trimmed. He's again in a long- sleeved, button-down-collar shirt. He idly makes a diagram for a rehearsal schedule as he talks.

After leaving Amarillo, Mason attended Northwestern University and its prestigious theater program. He came to New York in 1964, where he met Wilson. In 1969 Mason co-founded the Circle Rep. After 18 years of phenomenal success, he left the company to pursue filmmaking in LA, a time that he admits "was not my most productive." (It is probably not too much to assume that at least some of Mason's Hollywood experience is reflected in Boyd's post- Hollywood ennui.) Mason now holds a position in the theater department of Arizona State University. Throughout the years he and Wilson have continued their collaboration, not always to the degree of success they had in the Circle Rep years. Wilson's last play, Redwood Curtain, starred Jeff Daniels; despite a laudatory review from the New York Times' Frank Rich, most of the reviews were lukewarm at best, and the play closed after a handful of performances.

Mason remains the first reader of all the playwright's work, whatever the vagaries of New York criticism. He believes that what has kept them working together is the same as what brought them together — a shared vision of what the theater needs to be.

"One of the key elements has to do with an appreciation of the truth on stage," he says. "By that I mean the living creation of the actor. Lanford loves real good, honest, deep, creative acting. I don't know if you've heard him make snide comments about the English, but English acting that is all polished and smooth and technical just puts him right to sleep. He likes really, really wonderful, surprising creative people where the acting is really experienced in the here and now.

"I share that very much. It was my ability as a director to bring him that kind of performance that has been the basis of why we have had such a longtime relationship. We're interested in people — the New York Times called it "real plays about real people' in their headline when they discovered us. I think that's pretty fair, so character is at the center of Lanford's dramaturgy. In my view, theater is essentially about humankind in struggle with the universe at large, for either tragic or comic effect. The center on the human being is at the heart of drama, as both Lanford and I see it."

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