Days On End

Feel the contrivance! Photo courtesy STAGEStheatre.

It's easy to pick on small-town America. We know, just know, they still like George W. Bush there, love their religion while totally ignoring its basic tenets, and have an unhealthy obsession with guns. But they also tend to have convincing southern accents, unlike approximately half the cast of Stages Theater's production of Lanford Wilson's Book of Days. And those who get it right are often doing entirely different types of southern accent from one another (yes, folks, there's more than one kind). That may not be an issue for the target audience, but for this West Virginia-born, North Carolina-raised reviewer, it's a big distraction.

Not that it's a deal breaker, especially since lead actress Mo Arii is utterly convincing as Ruth Hoch, the firebrand wife of a cheese maker in the small town of Dublin, Missouri. She may live a simple life without much book learnin', but she's not stupid, and she doesn't stand for sass, unless she's the one giving it out. During Act I, this spirit lands her the role of Joan of Arc in a community-theater production of George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan. Her audition is the most effective scene in the film, as she is assessed by a director (Brian Fichtner) who is actually seated at the back of the auditorium, behind all of us patrons, thrusting us into the scene. It helps that she and Fichtner are by far the strongest actors in the cast, and their few scenes together are the most captivating.

The meat of the story is a murder mystery that involves the cheese factory at the heart of the town, but Wilson doesn't seem overly concerned with moving the actual plot forward. Using the play within the play as a creative device, he gets all meta on us a time or two, occasionally allowing Boyd to step out of his role within the play and let him become the actual director, most effectively in the scene in which he recasts one of the key characters, just for a moment, because the actress portraying the role originally refuses to use profanity.

But aside from that, the play often feels contrived just for the sake of contrivance. Any members of the cast not directly featured in a given scene tend to act as a Greek chorus of sorts, when one Our Town-type narrator would do. And much of the narration is superfluous: Do we really need to know on what date each scene is taking place, especially since successive scenes are almost always the day after the previous one? The artifice of the structure seems to trip the actors up rather than bringing out the best in them.

None of that is the cast's fault, of course, but one would suggest to them that those shakier on the accent aspect should simply speak normally. As the wife of the town hero, Nakisa Aschtiani loses her accent the more agitated and emotional she gets, and her performance is better for it. Conversely, Sean Rowry as the Reverend Bobby Graves seems to force the accent more as he ratchets up the intensity, and he is just awful at it; he'd be fine in the role if he simply spoke naturally.

Major props to set designer Jon Gaw and light designer Kirk Huff—their creations are simple but effective, with silhouetted trees on a white background that changes lighting schemes many times, including an intense, backlit-strobe effect during a tornado that's a real winner. If only the play itself were simpler and more focused. You want to see these characters live real lives, but Wilson's contrived structure mostly prevents that from happening.

Book of Days at Stages Theater, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; Fri.-Sat., 9 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Sept. 16. $15-$18.

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