William Saroyanwas a tough writer, with a hard-edged view of the painful social convulsions of the Depression, and of the injustice and inequality of capitalist society, but also with a tender heart for the individual, especially those under the heel of desperation. It didn't matter whether that desperation was the result of financial need, or just the need to be recognized as a person of value and meaning. He was also a born storyteller, but not the sort who finds structure in a clear storyline of cause and effect. Rather, he wanted to create a world in which people could wander along their own course, and about which we would have an overview, rather than a point of view. He loved the variety of types that peopled the streets of San Francisco in the late 1930's, and had a particular fondness for the idiosyncratic, the misfits and characters, dreamers, flim-flams, hard drinkers and curious dilettantes, losers and winners who have forgotten what it was they wanted to win. Above all, Saroyan was a man who loved people, who loved the great and dangerous adventure of life and the redemptive beauty of moments of generosity and kindness, in a world that seemed to be built on callous indifference.
In this exquisite and inventive production by Tina Landau, "The Time of Your Life" shows all of Saroyan's strength and largely overcomes his weaknesses. First produced two years ago by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and now revived by the Seattle Repertory Theatre and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, the cast is made up of Steppenwolf actors, as well as San Francisco and Seattle performers. With a massive cast of 24, it says a great deal that all of the roles feel fully-realized and distinctly drawn, and that the principles both stand-out in their particular excellence, and blend with the ensemble. The staging, which incorporates a massive structure of girders, scaffolds, murals, several areas of the bar, as well as an additional two levels of side stages allows for great visual variety, at the same time that it creates a sense of the sprawl and diversity of urban life. Ms. Landau uses a wealth of techniques in telling her story, at times giving us broad expanses, then narrowing to intimate scenes between only two characters, simultaneous action and dialogue in other scenes, and follow-spots to define soliloquy's. It's remarkable that a drama which is set in a bar, with all the inevitable limitations of that single, static setting, has been given such expanse and variety. It's daring and marvelously inventive stagecraft, although at times the sheer scale of the production seems to distance the drama a bit from the essentially person to person nature of Saroyan's strongest writing.
The performances are a textbook on the acting style sometimes called Chicago realism. As Joe, the enigmatic barfly with an undetermined source of money, a troubled conscience, and an endless fascination with his fellow beings, Jeff Perry is a controlled marvel. Just the right amounts of bemusement, vitality alternating with inertia, sentiment and cynicism, romantic longing and mournful detachment. In the same way that we are aware that this is a wild and undefined jungle of varied creatures, he manages to make us understand that it is his jungle, though in no way does he control or even understand it. At times his despair over the extent of his own failures is excruciating. He says he does nothing. He seems to have no life beyond random amusements. He connects with many while never feeling like he belongs to anyone or anything. Yet in a gorgeous scene with a mysterious dark lady (played with unforgettable grace and substance by Suzanne Bouchard) he is all heart and longing, all vulnerability and loss. It's a wonderful scene.
Other standout performances are given by Howard Witt, as the buckskin clad, "legend in his own mind" Kit Carson. He manages to get the most out of the awe-inspiring opening line "Have you ever been in love with a midget that weighed 38 pounds?" and even takes us along with the notion of herding cattle from a bicycle. Best of all, we see the essential dignity beneath this ludicrous persona, and that is essential in motivating his climactic action in the play. I also admired Marianne Mayberry, who never prettifies the prostitute Kitty, and even when her integrity is ravaged by a brutal cop's humiliation, we see a woman who sustains her personal sense of value, and thereby empowers dignity in everyone else. The naïve dreamer with little talent and great heart is played with skill and charm by Patrick New. He gives the character of Tom a kind of innate music slightly more adept than his movement, and a naïve purity that seems to protect him from the contamination of the world.
Speaking of music, part of Tina Landau's triumph in this production is the way she uses period music, in particular those great romantic classics from the American Songbook both as accent and accompaniment to the action. The entire production has the feel of a medley, and the sweet, longing sentiment of those midnight songs are perfect for the heartache of these people. Beyond that, there is an energy and buoyancy in the jazzier rhythms that underlines the improvisational feeling of much of the dialogue. Finally, it firmly locates us in a time and place where powerful forces of authority directly threatened the individual and the social order, and where a great battle was about to be fought against tyranny in its many forms.
"The Time of Your Life" is probably not a great play, but it does seem remarkably relevant and full of vitality. Saroyan was one of those writers who, no matter how brilliant or threadbare his story might be, was always entirely convincing in his passion to speak his truth, to express the depth of his engagement with life and all its terrible joys and disappointments. This beautiful and stunningly well-crafted production offers a rare opportunity to see his work presented on a grand scale, and to appreciate the gifts of a director no less gifted and passionate in her own engagement with life.
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