The Yale Dramatic Association’s freshman performers tackle a play with roles and issues much older than themselves in this weekend’s performance of Lanford Wilson’s “Book of Days.” While the show is not perfect, it proves to be a worthwhile opportunity to preview the potential of the organization’s rising talent.
Set in the rural town of Dublin, Mo., “Book of Days” chronicles the tale of a picturesque, highly conservative community that is jolted by the tragic death of one of its members. Structured into day-by-by vignettes that denote its name, “Book of Days” follows 12 Dublin residents, all of whom are somehow associated with the town’s cheese plant, in the days leading up to the gruesome incident as well as the tumultuous ones that follow.
At times it appears that the play’s unique journal-like format has not been handled to its maximum potential, as the story often rewinds and fast-forwards with dizzying speed, demarcated only by a cast member perfunctorily announcing the date. The audience is left reeling, bewildered as to when and where the actors are. If the format had been treated with a bit less flippancy, Wilson’s progressive vision may have served as more of a boon to the storyline rather than a hindrance to it.
The first act of the play serves to expose the strains that plague Dublin, caught between the conflicting demands of the reality of a town dying because of technological progress and the inertia of Dublin’s tradition as a clean, God-fearing community. With fragmented conversations that seem to have little point, the first act of the play can be admittedly confusing.
But the first half develops the characters well enough to prepare the audience for the whirlwind events that take place in the second act. In the wake of the town tragedy, Ruth Hoch (Jenny Nissel ’08), full-time bookkeeper of the cheese plant and part-time actress in the local production of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St. Joan,” suspects her neighbor’s death has not been accidental after all. Though the mystery fails to engage the audience, it nudges the plot forward toward the ultimate collapse of the community’s fragile moralistic existence.
Although the youth of the cast becomes obvious at certain points in the play, overall the freshman cast does an exceptional job portraying a relatively mature group of characters confronted with intergenerational conflicts.
Nissel belies her petite frame and youthful appearance to deliver a successful portrayal of the young but thoughtful Ruth. In her believable interpretation, the audience watches as Ruth defeats self-doubt first as an actress in “St. Joan” and then as she strengthens her resolve to reveal the truth about the accident to the rest of the town.
As James, the son of Dublin Cheese Plant owner Walt (Emmett Zackheim ’08), Alexander Newman-Wise ’08 emerges as the most convincing performer of the evening, demonstrating a firm grasp of the complexities that define his character. When the audience first meets James, Newman-Wise pulls off the squeaky clean self-confidence of a former high school basketball star who has moved on to a picture-perfect life as a lawyer. As the play progresses, however, Newman-Wise compels the audience to believe him as a troubled man coping with the aftermath of his infidelity toward his wife Lou Ann (Iris Insogna ’08).
“Why the H-E double-L can’t a man be friendly with a woman anymore?” Newman-Wise asks Ginger (Christine Garver ’08) in one memorable scene after attempting to solicit sexual favors from her.
The cast is not the only group to shine in the play, as those behind the scenes proved.
Though transparency is usually what defines effective lighting, the techniques used by lighting designer Anya Kaplan-Seem ’08 to illuminate the stage — not the sparse, unvarnished wood platforms that make up the set — unobtrusively transform the New Theater into the locales of pastoral Missouri. The turquoise glow that lights a night scene dramatically replicates moonlight filtering through the branches of forest trees. In the interlude that represents the plot’s fateful death, lights flicker in intense bursts of white, emulating the blinding lightning of a storm rolling through the Midwest.
The lengthy, two-and-a-half hour play leaves the audience with much to mull over, be it the sometimes confusing execution of the play or the philosophical questions of a town held hostage by self-righteous morality. Though marred by occasional problems, “Book of Days” remains a production viewers will not regret seeing.
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