It is nice to have, at Hartford Stage, Lanford Wilson back on the boards after a too-long silence, even if for Hartford to be close enough for us New Yorkers, it would have to be moved to Stamford. Anyhow, Wilson’s Book of Days takes place in the fictional Dublin, a tiny Missouri town, and chronicles the lives of twelve representative Dubliners during the hot summer of 1999. A murder is committed, but this is scarcely more than the grain of sand around which Wilson creates, if not quite a pearl, a big, tasty oyster.
He is more interested in the old cheese manufacturer Walt Bates, who essentially runs the town, and in his solidly supportive wife, Sharon. Then there is their spoiled, unreliable lawyer son, James, and his wife, LouAnn, on whom he cheats. Working for Bates is the young couple Len and Ruth Hoch. Ruth has been cast in the lead of Shaw’s Saint Joan, which is being staged at the local community theater by a hotshot director from the big time, Boyd Middleton (now rendered lukewarm by a scandal).
Boyd gets a thing going with Ginger, assigned to him as assistant. Len Hoch’s mother, Martha, a witty woman with a checkered but concealed past, teaches at the nearby, very Christian junior college. There are also the stolid sheriff, the eager but inept minister, and Earl, another Bates employee. Out of this dozen, Wilson aptly conjures up a microcosm, under the savvy direction, both realistic and stylized, of his longtime collaborator, Marshall W. Mason. Sometimes the entire cast is onstage as antiphonal voices from all over; sometimes a few characters linger silently on the fringes of the unit set that, as designed by John Lee Beatty, is both simple and versatile.
The problem is too many interesting characters that, though more than sketchy, beg for further development as the play bursts its seams trying to become a novel. Even so, with a terrific cast of both old hands and new faces, it sucks you into the cheese business, the monkey business, and the business of living as seen by a playwright with a taste for all.