Lanford Wilson is one of America's greatest living playwrights. Although he first gained prominence writing offbeat counterculture plays—which were produced at the famed Cafe Cino—Wilson, a native of Lebanon, Mo., has set many of his plays in the small towns of his home state. His most successful plays—Burn This and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Talley's Folly—were small-cast plays, although his first full-length play, Balm in Gilead, and his best-known play, Hot L Baltimore, featured large casts. In this current work, first presented in 1998, he returned to the narrative form of playwriting he had used before, as well as a large cast of characters in a small-town Missouri setting. Director David Kelso and his cast make a noble effort to stage this cumbersome work, but they just can't make Wilson's leaden prose shine.
Wilson sets the action in Dublin, Mo., pop. 4,000, located near Springfield. The cheese plant is the town's major employer, making owner Walt Bates (Tim Carr) the town's Big Cheese. His upright wife (Kaly McKenna) and daughter-in-law (Michelle Lang) are staunch Christians. His wastrel son James (Matthew Joyce) spells his cuss words, even though he's an alcoholic, adulterous lecher running for political office.
The Bateses aren't the play's main characters, however; the Hochs are. Len (John Rosen) is Bates' plant manager, who has a dream of making real aged cheese instead of just selling the curds and whey to Kraft for processing. Ruth (Teri Brown), the plant's bookkeeper, is also the musical star of the town's renowned community theatre. Not too savvy, she auditions for Shaw's Saint Joan by singing "You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan." But the former hotshot Hollywood director (David Blaine Meredith) gives her the lead anyway.
When Walt dies in a hunting accident in the middle of a tornado, Ruth turns into Sherlock Holmes. Wilson's play is all over the map as Ruth, in full St. Joan mode, endeavors to fight the good fight. Unfortunately, Wilson can't tie all his themes—the religious fundamentalists, small-town scandals, a murder, a political campaign—into an interesting whole. The play meanders for long stretches and then just ends. The two most interesting characters, Len's hippie college dean of a mother (Michele Guisti) and Ginger (Karla Francesca), the play's assistant director, have the sharpest personalities and the best lines.
"Book of Days," presented by and at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave., Chula Vista. Thu.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Jan. 14-Feb 12. $12-14. (619) 422-7787.