LOUISVILLE -- The American Theatre Critics Association named Lanford Wilson's morality play, Book of Days, the top winner of the ATCA New Play Award for 1998.
Orlando Sentinel critic Elizabeth Maupin presented the award to a shy Wilson at a brief pre-show ceremony March 20 at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Special Visitors' Weekend of the 23rd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Also recognized with citations for outstanding plays that premiered outside New York City in 1998 were:
Donald Margulies for Dinner With Friends, his comedy-drama about two middle-aged couples and their changing marriages and evolving friendships, which premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisvill'’s Humana Festival in 1998. It was subsequently staged at South Coast Repertory Theatre.
Lisa Loomer's Expecting Isabel, her harrowing comedy-drama about the medical and bureaucratic obstacles on the road to making -- or adopting -- a baby, which premiered at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in 1998. All three top winners of the New Play Award will have their works excerpted with critical introductions in the Burns Mantle yearbook, "Best Plays." Since 1974, ATCA has selected new plays produced outside New York City for inclusion in the yearbook. In 1986, ATCA began its New Play Award, citing three works and giving $1,000 to the top winner.
Wilson's drama concerns a murder in a small Missouri town and one quirky woman’s mission to uncover the truth about it. Wilson is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose works include Talley's Folly, Burn This and Rimers of Eldritch, which Book of Days most recalls.
Wilson thanked the ATCA and told the crowd that Purple Rose executive director and founder Jeff Daniels, the film actor, commissioned the play with no limits on the size of cast or subject matter, but did ask the playwright to perhaps "make it about the Midwest if you can" but "not about the Talley family" -- a reference to Wilson's trio of plays with related characters, Fifth of July, Talley’s Folly and Talley and Son.
Wilson spoke of how theatre helps define a community and bring it together. "Even if theatre is bad, it brings a community together," he quipped.
The award also helps bring attention to the Purple Rose, a 119-seat Equity SPT theatre company founded nine years ago by Michigan native Daniels, the film and stage actor whose legit career began with playing Jed in Wilson’s Fifth of July in New York City 20 years ago.
Sitting with Wilson at Actors Theatre were Purple Rose artistic director Guy Sanville and Michigan actor Randall Godwin, who appeared in the play.
In just a few short years, Daniels’ theatre, 60 miles west of Detroit in small-town Chelsea, has become one of the most successful companies in Michigan arts history: Loyal audiences, sold out shows, corporate funding, a network to national actors and writers, fundraising muscle linked to Daniels' marquee name.
The main focus of the Purple Rose has been new works -- including wildly successful comedies by Daniels -- although previously-produced regional works and new American classics, such as Jane Martin’s Keely and Du and Wilson’s The Hot l Baltimore, respectively, have also been part of the success recipe there.
Book of Days was among 18 scripts nominated by critics around the country. Lawrence DeVine, former theatre critic of The Detroit Free Press, who nominated the script, wrote: "Deep down, perhaps, Book of Days is about frightened people: townspeople afraid to stand up and be counted, some with secrets, some cowed by old-time religion, some just numb. Wilson's Missouri village comes to look universal."
Critics at Michigan’s two major dailies were split over Book of Days: The Free Press praised it, The Detroit News regarded it as an unfocused work-in-progress. In his acceptance speech, Wilson admitted it was odd getting an award for a play that few knew about. The work has not had a major staging since 1998.
Among finalists for the award were:
Steve Dietz's Rocket Man, a serious comedy about a suicidal man who flees into a parallel universe from his attic (Arizona Theatre Company, Phoenix and Tucson).
Richard Greenberg's Safe as Houses, a three-act drama about a marriage and lives that change drastically over three decades (McCarter Theatre, Princeton, N.J.).
Jon Klein's Dimly Perceived Threats to the System, a comedy about a modern family coping with life’s challenges (Arena Stage).
Among past winners of the award are August Wilson’s Fences, The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running, Jane Martin’s Jack and Jill and Keely and Du, Romulus Linney’s Heathen Valley and 2, Michael Cristofer’s Amazing Grace and Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods.
Since 1994, the announcement of ATCA's New Play Award has been part of the so-called "Special Visitors' Weekend" at the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, the country's leading showcase of agented, commissioned new works.
Coming near the end of the four-week festival, the special weekend is attended by critics and other media, agents of all kinds, industry people from throughout the world, and "civilian" theatregoers from Louisville, the Midwest and beyond.
The award was given moments before a performance of Life Under 30, a collection of eight one-acts by playwrights aged 30 years or younger, at the Pamela Brown Auditorium.
-- By Kenneth Jones