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Passion is something local stages can never get too much of, and when it surfaces in a play with a political ax to grind, it’s even more welcome. So when characters start waxing euphoric at Arena Stage in Book of Days, Lanford Wilson’s eloquently argumentative melodrama about liberal impotence in the face of fundamentalist hypocrisy, you pretty much have to sit up and take notice.

It hardly even matters that the subject at hand isn’t politics, but cheese—cheddar, to be precise—the nutty, pungent, sharp, fruity richness of which is extolled at some length (although not necessarily in that order) by a sandal-clad Midwesterner named Len (Brian Keane). He’s talking to a stylishly sardonic Left Coast director (Mark Pinter) who’s thoroughly out of his element in Len’s hometown—Dublin, Mo.—but rather likes the enthusiasm he keeps finding there. It is, in fact, almost entirely for her enthusiasm that he has cast Len’s wife, Ruth (Jennifer Mudge), as the lead in his mounting of Shaw’s Saint Joan. Her previous experience has been in musicals (she tried out because she heard that the play was by the guy who wrote My Fair Lady) but she remembered a bit of Romeo and Juliet from high school at the audition—and became radiant while reciting it.

“She is Saint Joan,” proclaims the director when he gets to know her better. And he’s right. She’s passionate, too—but not as passionate as Len is about cheese. Nor is Len alone in his lactophilic ardor. His employer, cheese-plant owner Walt Bates (Jack Willis), still recalls the “gritty” sweetness of a provolone he tasted some three decades earlier. The look on his face as he recalls it says worlds about what following blander recipes has done to him in the years since he became a successful but anonymous supplier for Kraft.

Book of Days gets a lot of mileage out of these conversations, though it isn’t really about the cheese guys so much as it is about the suits and hayseeds who surround them, none of whom appear to harbor passions for much of anything except money, and maybe the ability to stifle passions in others. There’s Walt’s elegant, prudish, Hammacher Schlemmer-reading wife (Jade Wu). There’s his superficially charming son, James (Scott Janes), who spends his time playing golf, betraying his wife (Monette Magrath), and avoiding anything remotely related to his father’s business. Offering the town moral guidance is the Rev. Bobby Groves (David Fendig), who is well-read enough to debate Shavian rhetoric with the visiting theater director—and practical enough to resort to blackmail when mere argument won’t suffice in getting the show canceled. Also figuring in the story are a born-again sheriff (David Toney), a dim cheese-plant manager (Jefferson Breland), and a few hangers-on, who are mostly around so the principals won’t have to launch into soliloquies every time a thought occurs to them.

Their little burg—pointedly average, as described in a Thornton Wilder-ish prologue that mentions four bars and five churches—functions unofficially as a sort of theocracy, with the Rev. Groves calling more of the shots than urban civil libertarians might expect. Cheese- and arts-loving nonbelievers are clearly in the minority, and their number shrinks further when Walt dies in what’s initially deemed a hunting accident.

At that point, Book of Days becomes a murder mystery, with Ruth playing detective, discovering discrepancies in the official version of events (the gun that supposedly killed Walt doesn’t seem to have been fired) and then going on a crusade to get the authorities to listen to her doubts. There’s never much question as to whodunit, but that’s not really Wilson’s concern, anyway. He’s more intent on calling attention to his plot’s parallels with Saint Joan, which are relatively unobtrusive at first but become more pronounced when Ruth starts wearing her stage armor around town and charging into churches, sword in hand, to bring her fundamentalist opponents to account.

Given the Bush administration’s conservative take on the arts and active antipathy toward separation of church and state, Wilson’s concerns clearly have currency, but Book of Days would be considerably more intriguing if the author had been able to make his bad guys as nuanced and human as his good guys, who mostly seem to have come to Missouri directly from his warm, Big Chill-ish dramedy, Fifth of July. Though Arena’s cast is top-notch, it struggles to make boldfaced types—Snarky Son, Wronged Wife, Witless Widow, Prevaricating Pastor—into characters who can engage audience empathy, and Wendy C. Goldberg’s briskly paced staging is too clearly on the side of the liberal-minded angels to level the playing field much.

The production does get some visual oomph from designer Michael Brown’s architectural miniatures of churches, houses, and gazebos, which morph when needed into pieces of furniture. And Wilson’s dialogue is snappy and well-crafted, if never quite Shavian. I could have done with fewer reminders that I was in a theater (at one point, Walt’s widow—or, rather, the actress playing her—refuses to say lines that contain profanity), which felt like overkill in an evening that was already working awfully hard at stating the obvious—Arena’s audience being likely to side with cheese- and arts-loving iconoclasts in this particular scuffle.

Still, there were signs that the opening-night crowd, at least, was learning as the evening wore on—most prominently the differing audience reactions to a pair of anti-French jests, one in the first act, the other in the second. The first, which had to do with how the French sure can cook but are “absolute bastards otherwise,” got a smattering of applause when uttered with a raised eyebrow by the worldly director of the play-within-the-play. By contrast, a later comment by the Rev. Groves that “the French have never been fighters,” (the context is his analysis of Saint Joan) prompted mere murmurs, perhaps because by that time the audience was rethinking whether it really wanted to laugh along with a right-wing ideologue. CP