Jan. 20 2010 12:00 AM

‘Book’ proves less than spellbinding

Commissioned by the Purple Rose Theater in 1998, Lanford Wilson’s "Book of Days" is a bitterly dark caricature of ignorant values set in a small Midwestern town. It is the dark underbelly of “Our Town” mixed with “Joan of Arc,” and while it takes its time getting to the meat of the story, its murder mystery shell provides ample entertainment to compensate for Wilson’s own pulpit-preaching of corruption and the futility of trying to change the system.

Given all of this, Riverwalk Theatre’s current adaptation still only presents the audience with melodramatic surface tension that rarely sinks under the skin.

Director Philip Himebaugh never provides any visionary direction beyond what the script offers, leaving a production with mostly stale, unimaginative blocking and actors who rarely sound truthful.

The cast clomps on and off the stage like a herd of cattle instead of appearing from the mist. They either indulge in overacting or they give nothing at all, as if Himebaugh chose to only compliment his actors instead of pushing them.

Emily Aslakson plays Ruth Hoch, the play’s voice of reason the town never listens to. Part of this is attributable to the ugly truth she spouts, but it may also be colored by Aslakson’s own tear-drenched delivery that starts at full intensity from the beginning of the play. With nowhere to go once the action and mystery are amped up, Ruth Hoch comes off as the girl who cried wolf instead of a person becoming increasingly convinced of her own convictions.

Her foil is James Bates, played with a sinister sneer by Joe Dickson. Dickson appears to enjoy his
against-type evil persona, but he is less playful with the character
than he could be.

Mike Stewart as Sheriff Atkins is by far the most natural of the cast, followed closely by Adam Carlson as Earl Hill as the simple-minded son.

The rest provide their characters with their own persona and minimal effort. It is never poor, but it rarely rises above average.

Dethlefsen does doubleduty with set and costume design. While the painted black cubes and mini-stages provide a nicely ambiguously adaptable playing space for the actors, her costumes choices often do not reflect the characters as written and often feel like they are from different visions.

Jim Allen’s lighting design nicely compliments the stages and movements of the actors with fixed spots and colorful backlighting, which is aided by Rick Dethlefsen’s equally tasteful sound design.

“Book of Days”

p.m. Jan. 21, 8 p.m. Jan. 22-23, and 2 p.m. Jan. 24 $10 adults, $8
students and seniors on Thursdays; $14 adults, $12 students and seniors
for other performances Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 482-5700 www.riverwalktheatre.com