Taproot Theatre's current production of "In the Book Of" by John Walch certainly fits into the admirable moral, spiritual and theatrical ambitions of this company. It is the story of a female soldier in Afghanistan whose husband is killed in combat and who then returns to her home in Mississippi accompanied by an Afghan woman translator, also a widow. Her mother-in-law is a shallow if cantankerous woman who has decided to run for Mayor on a platform built largely on the single plank of "getting rid of" the immigrant outsiders. Her father-in-law is a much more restrained man who is really no match for his boisterous wife and her brother-in-law is a man severely damaged by his role in the accidental death of his brother. Because her husband, Eddie, dies early in the play his presence is spectral and emotional. The greater conflict is with the community at large which is all too willing to stand behind Gail in her efforts to "sweep the town clean" of these foreign outsiders.
The cast is accomplished and quite effective in embodying this story of intolerance and acceptance, of overcoming our natural fear of the unknown and in building a world where everyone can belong. Director Scott Nolte certainly does a good job of keeping the action moving and the focus clear. My major problem with this show is the script itself, which seems to me altogether too obvious, deliberate and blatantly didactic to be convincing as a human drama. You don't have to dig very deep to know exactly how we are supposed to feel toward each and every one of these characters. It's well-written, but in a rather stiff, correctly composed way. None of that is the fault of the performers.
I was especially impressed with Allison Strickland as the returning veteran, Lt. Naomi Watkins. Her decency and focus on doing the right thing felt organic and entirely true to the character. I also thought Carolyn Marie Monroe was very good as the Afghan woman, Anisah. Her exploration and integration into American culture was both amusing and quite touching. The relationship between the two women felt warm and sincere. In the role of the outrageous Southern redneck mother-in-law, Gail, Pam Nolte was terrific, and in her performance the artifice and over-wrought political stance felt as appropriately extreme as everything else about her. Nolan Palmer underplayed her husband, Bo Sr. with just enough individual personality to make it clear he was a different person from his wife. Their son, Bo Jr. was played with an earnest decency by Kevin Pitman, and Matt Shimkus was just fine as the somewhat noble deceased husband, Eddie.
Overall, this was a pretty successful production of a pretty obvious story, and while I don't want to give the impression that I thought this was slight, irrelevant or unimportant, I really couldn't get past the obviousness of the dramatic structure, concluding in a happy ending that was so predictable it soured the whole story for me. I'm sure this show will work much better for others, and it is certainly competently performed, but the artifice and "learning opportunity" of this almost parable was too transparent to be convincing. Yes, I got it. But I didn't feel anything different towards this subject as I was walking out of the theater than I felt as I was walking in.
PICTURED ABOVE: Carolyn Marie Monroe and Alison Strickland in In the Book Of at Taproot Theatre
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug