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.

"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.
Jennifer Silverberg
When Jim Haynie auditioned for the role of Walt, Steve 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 ó this is the most important play I've read in years.'"
Left to right: Matt Rauch, Dee Hoty, Suzanne Regan and Marshall Mason. "I discovered a long time ago that the acting process cannot be shortchanged," Mason asserts. "It must be given full opportunity."
Jennifer Silverberg
Left to right: Matt Rauch, Dee Hoty, Suzanne Regan and Marshall Mason. "I discovered a long time ago that the acting process cannot be shortchanged," Mason asserts. "It must be given full opportunity."

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."

Campbell and Regan run the scene again, this time mulling over their responses to each line. The scene turns ragged, clumsy, and takes twice the time it took before. The two professionals look lost out there, but a vulnerability in Campbell's character is exposed that wasn't there before, and a firmness in Regan's.

"That's better," Mason says.

"Yeah, yeah," Wilson concurs.

At the close of three hours of rehearsal, actor Matthew Rauch can't contain his exuberance. "It's like being in a master class," he says. "Then, every once in a while, I look over and go, "That's Lanford Wilson over there.'"

"Marshall and Lanford changed the face of American theater," says Regan one evening as the cast relax together with drinks and dinner at the apartment complex the Rep reserves for visiting actors. "I'm just happy to be in the same room. These are the people you read about."

What Regan, and at least the younger cast members, have read about is one of the most unique collaborations in American theater, one that continues, after more than 30 years, with Book of Days. After Wilson's play opens the Rep's season on Friday, Sept. 10, and concludes its four-week run, it moves to Hartford, Conn., in October, and then, if the New York critics are at the very least respectful, a possible spot on Broadway.

Both men are in their 60s now. Mason says he looks back to when he and Wilson met in the wild off-off-Broadway scene of the mid-1960s and the subsequent formation of Circle Rep as "like another life." In that other life, he and Wilson were a couple of guys from the sticks trying to make a creative life for themselves in Greenwich Village (Mason from Amarillo, Texas; Wilson from Ozark, Mo.). They found that they shared a vision of theater that coincided with a historical moment of questioning, exploration and confrontation, a time when the facades of middle-class America were to be torn down and artists were to express the newly revealed truths. At performance spaces such as Cafe La Mama and Caffe Cino, artists gathered who sought a new, vital theater — as their predecessors O'Neill, Williams, Miller and Albee had. Sam Shepard was a teenager from the Midwest waiting tables. Wilson and Mason wore their hair to their shoulders and seemed so in sync that people had trouble telling them apart. Whatever had been taboo was ripe for exploration. Race, sexuality, religion, the war — subjects formerly avoided were now an obsession. A young producer and entrepreneur, Joseph Papp, took a neglected musical, had the cast stand naked in one brief tableau, and created a phenomenon called Hair.

Circle Rep emerged out of the revolutionary spirit of the time, founded by Mason with actors Tanya Berezin and Rob Thirkield. The company was to provide a home for talent coming out of the off- off-Broadway scene, a place where playwrights, actors, directors and technicians could mature, develop and grow. A partial list of the artists who were part of the Circle Rep experience from 1969-96 (when it finally folded because of burdensome debts) is a record of the finest playwrights and performing artists of a generation: Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd, Mark Medoff, Jon Robin Baitz, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathy Bates, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, David Ives, Jeff Daniels, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, Conchata Ferrell. In the past, remarks Jonathan Hogan, "the theater made stars rather than recruited them."

Circle Rep did both contemporary theater and new interpretations of the classics, but of the playwrights who wrote for the company Wilson was the most integral, and the most astonishing. The Hot l Baltimore was the play that put Circle Rep on the map — at least in regard to mainstream theater audiences. Hogan was a member of the cast, his first work with Mason and Wilson. He remembers the preview performance and the audience rising with applause when the lights finally faded on the play's assortment of misfits. He says that before opening night, people stood in line to put their names on waiting lists for seats. After Hot l, Mason and Wilson were "discovered," and Hogan met his wife, the actress Stephanie Gordon, in the cast. "I got to see her naked," he recalls fondly. Indeed, this was a particularly nude time in American theater. Stripping the facade from American mores meant literally stripping. When the Circle Rep closed, Sylviane Gold of the New York Times wrote an anecdotal summary of the company's influence, including the story of a young actor named William Hurt disrobing every night to dive into a pool of water in a Corinne Jacker play, My Life. When he caught a cold, he was replaced by understudy Christopher Reeve.

But the legacy of Circle Rep has less to do with flesh than it does with a group of artists who worked to make theater an essential part of the life of the times. Out of that effort, it is Wilson's work is that most endures. Wilson's plays make art out of the vernacular, and like the Russian master Chekhov, whom he reveres, Wilson presents the audience with an unnerving reflection of themselves — their speech, their lives — to provoke an examination of those lives.

Wilson's style of theater is so unique that it's been awarded its own academic label: "lyrical realism." His friend and collaborator, Mason, shame-facedly admits, "I'm probably the one who coined that phrase, because I was trying to describe what we did — a kind of realism as opposed to naturalism. Lyrical because the language is elevated so that the real event becomes a poetic event."

Tennessee Williams is a profound influence, says Mason. Circle Rep was the first company to bring Williams' first play, Battle of Angels, to the New York stage, and both director and playwright remember their mentor with great affection. "Williams was always trying to elevate the theater from the mundane naturalism into something poetic," says Mason. "In Williams it's almost a bit excessive: "For nowadays the world is lit by lightning!' It's wonderful, it's poetry, it's extraordinary. But people don't really talk like that any more than they talk like they do in Shakespeare.

"I loved Williams' use of language — that's one of the things that drew me to him. Lanford has an even finer ear, in my opinion, because Lanford's poetry is so much more modest than Tennessee's. But he has the gift of making people sound like they really talk."

For example, in Burn This, the fiery, violent, sexy Pale tries to explain himself to the woman who will become his eventual love interest: "Yeah, I'm a dresser. I keep myself neat. I'm fuckin' up the back of my pants, gettin' all fucked up. Fuckin' linen. Half linen, half wool — fuckin' useless. I could've been the dancer. Who needs it? Our old man, when we was kids, music all over the place. You couldn't hear yourself think. Vivaldi, Puccini, we all knew all that crap, Shostakovich. I've done — like — whole symphonies, amazed people, natural talent, totally original shit, like in the shower. I don't sing Hall & Oates, I compose — like — these tone poems, concertos and shit — huge big orchestrations, use like two orchestras."

Wilson composes a vulgar music for Pale, a jazz improvisation full of stops, starts, phrases that drive inward to a sharp edge and others that soar outward into brief incandescent arcs. Pale is a character who is both threatening and alluring, and wholly unpredictable, so each sentence is a surprise. Any actor who didn't remember to keep both alls in "we all knew all that crap" deserves a fine.

Matthew Rauch, who's cast opposite Regan as Ruth's husband in Book of Days, says that playing the role of Pale is what confirmed his need to be an actor. In a college production at Princeton, Rauch remembers, "I said the line "My heart hurts' and I heard this — " he makes the sound of an anguished sigh — "come out of the audience. I felt, if this is how it feels to connect with an audience, this is what I want to do all the time." Few contemporary playwrights connect on the visceral level that Wilson does. To speak in terms of an "American soul" invites cynical disdain, but that is precisely the territory Wilson explores. Just as audiences in Moscow were stunned by Chekhov's plays, feeling they'd been caught in a mirror, so audiences who came to the Circle Rep to see The Hot l Baltimore in 1973 saw a piece of American life before them presented with explicit honesty, with humor, affection, frustration, anger and tears.

Even in Wilson's comedic work a moral anger rises from his plays. Coming from a generation that sought to confront the banality of middle-class lives, Wilson continually turns his anger on the complacency of a country that is willing to accept, and perpetuate, a false identity of itself. For example, in Talley's Folly — which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 — a Jewish accountant, Matt Friedman (a role Wilson wrote for Judd Hirsch), drives from St. Louis to woo Sally Talley in Lebanon, Mo. (the Talleys are a prominent Lebanon clan Wilson examines in two other plays that make up the Talley cycle — Fifth of July and Talley & Son). In the opening scene, Matt speaks directly to the audience, introducing the romantic situation, describing the play as "a waltz." The time is 1944, near the end of World War II. Although the play is a romance, Wilson delivers a brief history lesson about "the good war" that isn't often told. Sally says to Matt, "People are afraid to admit it, but I think they're worried about what's going to happen when the boys come back." Matt, who cynically refers to the war as a "sideshow," responds testily: "Down here they're afraid to admit it? I'm glad to hear it. It shows humility. Humility is good for the soul. In St. Louis they tremble in their beds at night. Headlines in the papers. One businessman said the war had to last another two years or the nation would never recover."

As World War II recedes further into the golden cloud of nostalgia, Wilson won't allow American history to become a soft, cozy dream, reminding his audience that this country has always been pulled by forces less noble than the ideals of liberty and freedom, and as ruthless as the goals of economic expediency.

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?'

"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."

Mason gets to that center through a slow, incremental investigation of individual scenes. "My admonishment to take their time comes from trying to contain the automatic urge the actor has to perform, to get results quickly. So much of theater is geared toward results done by people who are themselves — talk about anxiety — producers, writers, directors. All are terribly concerned that the end product must be good, so they must see the results as soon as possible. The result of going for results is that real deep investigation does not get done, so you have these superficial performances we're all very familiar with."

Mason and Wilson believe that the actor and acting are at the heart of theater. Says Jonathan Hogan of the two, "For them it's an art," as opposed to "move here; cross here." With too many directors, Hogan has observed, "It's mostly I direct and you act. You do your work and I'll do mine. With Marshall, you work on a scene all day long. You take from the circumstance and what's going on in the scene so the movement grows out of the scene."

"My objective," explains Mason, "is to try to get the actors to the point where they can really live the performance onstage instead of thinking consciously about what their hands are doing or what gestures ... the gestures will be appropriate to what's happening if they are born of need, if they come out of the character's need to express him or herself."

In those moments in rehearsal when the actor is lost, as when Campbell and Regan found themselves groping for their characters' motivations, Mason finds the core of the process: "If you know what you're doing, it's too cut-and-dried, it's intellectual, it's not coming from the creative part of the imagination. Being lost, feeling vulnerable — in real life that's how we feel a lot of the time. You don't know what's going to happen next. You don't know what the answer is. You don't know what you should say.

"Reality tends to be a bit boring sometimes — that's one of the things actors have to be brave enough to encounter. I slow them down because until they know what's going on in the moment, until they know why they say what they say, or why they move where they move, or what the other person is trying to do to them, or what they want from the other person — you have to go slowly to discover all that. And then, once you know — in this scene I know what I'm doing, and I move here because of that, and I say this line because of what just happened, and the connections are made — once you know that, it's amazing how quickly things happen."

Caught up in this process of the here and now, Mason doesn't have much time for thinking back on the golden years at the Circle Rep: "I'm not a person who lives very much in the past. I want to stay in the present and look to the future. It's easy to do that when I'm working on what may be his best play. Maybe the best is yet to come."

Lanford Wilson's best does not come in the morning. He was up late the night before doing an impromptu run-through of a scene between Hogan and John Lepard, who plays town minister Bobby Groves and is one of the members of the original Purple Rose cast. The aftermath of the after-hours work is a red-eyed, disheveled Wilson, badly in need of a cigarette when he sits down for an interview.

He's gracious despite his allergic-to-morning symptoms. As Woolf says, there's no cynicism as he discusses the play and the process. "There are two things that are just great," he says about hearing the dialogue he's invented spoken in rehearsal. "It's when they say it exactly the way you heard it in your head — oh yes! — and when they say it better, when they find something you didn't know was there.

"Boris McGiver has a speech in the play where he's telling how the accident happened. It's an incredibly complicated speech — it looks very simple on the page — but really he's lying and telling the truth at the same time. He's making half of it up, and telling half of what really happened — and some of the speech is delivered to the audience and some to the characters onstage. It's incredibly complicated. Also, what is he feeling during that? He is telling the story, feeling incredibly guilty — which he is trying to cover — and incredible sorrow, which he is also trying to cover.

"I had heard the speech done essentially flat in Michigan. The guy did it perfectly well but essentially "blah, blah, blah, blah.' Boris did the speech. He broke down twice. The sheriff had to hold him while he was bawling his eyes out. He just amazed everyone. I think everyone in the room straightened their spine — he raised the bar about two notches.

"When we go out for a cigarette break, no one ever talks about the work. When they went out after the speech, everybody was, "Why'd you cast him? He's got no imagination. He's got no talent.'" Such talk is nothing but an actor's dodge, Wilson explains, ironic phrases that really mean "Holy shit, was that good."

"So when you see that, that's just amazing. They're no longer your words anymore. They're his words. It's really thrilling."

Wilson nearly breaks down himself as he relates the anecdote, caught up in the emotion of the moment he's recalling. Wilson, who seeks the genuine in art, embraces the same in his life.

"When they're really good, it's very exciting," he continues, "and we have a stunning cast. I love to see the process. I get incredibly impatient with how slow it is sometimes. I just get intolerably impatient. It's like, "For God sake's, get it,' or, "You've got it — why do we have to go so slow? Surely they know what they're doing by now.' But no, that's not the process. Sometimes I love the process, and sometimes I get so impatient with it.

"But you keep learning. You keep saying, "You know what? You don't need that word or that word,' or, "You need an "and" in there, or something.' I feel I have to be there, and I keep learning about the work through their work.

"Also, I can go to Marshall and say, "That's not it,'" he says under his breath with a note of distress. "But that doesn't happen very often."

Wilson drew partly from personal history in creating Book of Days. "Why struggle when something is right at hand?" he asks. "My stepfather in Ozark had Earl's job — was the dairy inspector for a cheese plant. I know the cheese business. I'm a pretty decent cook. I've been reading about artisan cheeses — it was all right handy. I've been in more milking parlors than I could possibly count because I used to go around with him when I was 15, 16."

Wilson is one of the very few male American playwrights who create fully faceted women's roles. Again, he refers to his experience growing up as inspiration: "I really like writing women." Most playwrights, he says, "are terrified of them." Growing up, he developed an appreciation of women and their particular language: "The stepfather was never around. The father left early. The early years were really with my grandmother and mother back and forth, and, when Mother remarried, the two stepsisters. They'd have their girls over and talk all night, and I would hang out. When you hear girl talk, really, it is astonishing."

The night before, over beer and pasta, several of the younger members of the cast spoke disconsolately about the future of American theater. Wilson has heard "the death of theater" proclaimed more than once during his career. "When someone as brilliant as Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America) is on the scene, you can't despair. Just go with him. Someone said to me, "Will you be influenced by Tony Kushner's work?' I said, "Well, if I'm not, I'm pretty damn dead, aren't I?' What do we learn from that? Well, (a) tell a story. You can forget that. You really can. Tell a story."

The reason Wilson becomes discouraged is the status of American criticism. "The only negative thing about theater is the way it's received. My despair is for American criticism and the lack of support and the negative attitude. Marshall wrote theater criticism for a paper in Arizona for a couple years, and he was actively encouraged to be negative and hateful by the editors.

"We're going to Hartford, and this production will be reviewed by the New York critics — some of them, anyway — and I just hold my head in despair at what they're going to say. And maybe the production will be no damn good and they'll be right. We won't know what we've got until we've got it. We've sure got a talented cast."

Wilson appears to take the possibilities of failure, and a skewering from the New York critics, without much serious concern. "It troubles me only financially. If they like it, it comes to Broadway and I make some money. If they don't, it won't and I won't. But whether they get it or not — it's almost amusing how badly they missed Redwood Curtain. Not Frank Rich, because I told him. He said, "What's this one about?' I said, "It's the history of America since Vietnam disguised as a three-character fable.' And that's what he reviewed. He knew what it was. The other critics didn't have a clue. They didn't have any entrance into it. I guess I hadn't provided one, but I thought it was perfectly simple."

Wilson's work began in a highly charged political era, and he finds it incomprehensible that the politics of his recent work is ignored in an apolitical time. "The New York critics are so pleased with the British and Irish plays because they're political, they say; even if it's about family, it's really about politics. But they can't see that in the American plays. Idiots! But they don't see it in American plays.

"That's all we're writing about. We're writing about the politics of America. The critics don't see it. It just goes right over their heads. They have to have the English critics tell them that the English plays are really political — even if it's a two-character love story, it's really about England and Scotland. Oh, bullshit! But they can't see it in their own. It's annoying."

Given the nature of recent Broadway fare, a play that turns as dark as Book of Days could scare producers away. Undaunted, Wilson has to believe trends can change. "They actively are keeping American plays off the Broadway stage. You go off-Broadway and see As Bees in Honey Drown and Wit — the good plays — and say, what in the fuck is wrong? Why on earth are the good plays off-Broadway and this crap on Broadway? I don't get it.

"I swear there is an audience for good work. There's got to be."

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