American Psychos 

Book of Days exposes puritanical rot in the American heartland.

Jesus," said some anonymous man in the audience, as the cast of Book of Days offered up the play's chilling benediction. The poor guy sounded sick, like he might throw up in his seat, and I knew exactly how he felt. The play wasn't bad. In fact, Book of Days, now showing at Playhouse on the Square, is one of the most relevant, well-acted shows you are likely to see anywhere. But, oh, the awful things it has to say about America at the turn of the millennium! Its conclusions are genuinely upsetting and practically impossible to refute.

Lanford Wilson's latest dramatic offering is an epic story of a cultural turf war condensed to fit the classic mold of a small-town murder mystery. It is essential viewing. Young Goodman Brown, the youthful protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic short story, sees every upstanding member of his devout community out in the woods, hedonistically reveling in the ecstatic thrall of Lucifer. Hawthorn was responding to the lingering effects of America's second Great Awakening, when second-generation Puritan churches, in order to maintain an ironclad grip on their congregations, tried to pass community laws and to control all education. Wilson has spotted a similar trend in the heartland of 21st-century America, where Wal-Mart is king, Harry Potter is banned from library shelves, and groups are diligently working to have the Ten Commandments on display in public buildings. Book of Days revisits 180 years later the sinister conditions that spawned "Young Goodman Brown."

Dublin, Missouri, Wilson's fictional tornado-alley town, is a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. It has a community theater and a large fundamentalist church run by a handsome, ambitious young minister (Michael Ingersoll). It has a small Christian college, and there is no obvious minority population. The cast describes Dublin as "a clean /quiet /wide awake/prosperous town," filled with farmers, and folks who work at the cheese factory. It's a slice of the good life, until Walt Bates (a crusty Bill Andrews), the richest man in town, dies in a freak hunting accident, leaving his spoiled, ignorant, and ambitious son (Jonathan Lamer) with lots of money.

In a star turn, Lamer, a Playhouse regular, plays a trust-funded slacker who, after seven attempts, finally manages to pass the bar. But now that daddy's dead, he doesn't have to practice law. He's going to sell out the family cheese factory, make a mint, and give a chunk of change to the megachurch that promises to turbocharge his budding career as a conservative politician. Like everything else in his charmed life, the plan comes off without a hitch. As they say in the Texas Air National Guard: Privilege has its privileges.

Not everyone believes that Walt's death, which happened the night of a devastating windstorm, was an accident. But the preacher does, and so do a church-going widow and church-going sheriff. Anyone who says otherwise is ruined or threatened with ruin, allowing an imperfect crime to become perfectly whitewashed in the name of Jesus Christ.

The cast represents a Memphis theater dream team: Jeff Godsey, Leah Bray Nichols, Courtney Oliver, Brian Mott, Michael Ingersoll, Jason Craig, Kelly King, Meg Geer, Irene Crist, and Laurie Cook McIntosh all bring their best work to the most basic of sets, where the puritanical town of Dublin springs to dysfunctional life. It isn't a town filled with good people and bad people. It's a town filled with curious people and incurious people, secure in their belief that a few tears shed in soul-searching prayer can wash away even the worst sins. It is a town not at all unlike the one Young Goodman Brown lived in, where the folks in church on Sunday morning worship Satan in the woods on Saturday night.

From its opening homage to Our Town to its final devastating lines, Book of Days is a searing, sophisticated indictment of the contemporary Christian right.

Through Oct. 17th

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