Wise Fools Parade
William Saroyan is rediscovered in Salinas.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
The Western Stage’s production of William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life is so relaxed and intoxicating it feels like a three-beer buzz.
Among the dim light and the fog of alcohol, Saroyan’s dialogue turns around and around like leaves in a river’s eddy. While the world continues to bustle brightly outside, occasionally pitching another soul in to the bar’s dark confines, his characters play out their microcosmic dramas, oblivious to the roar of change just downriver.
It’s 1939 and the regulars of Nick’s, a bar on the San Francisco waterfront, swirl around each other with a natural ease and realism that’s a testament to the San Francisco writer’s tremendous, underappreciated talent, as well as some impressive acting from The Western Stage’s cast.
A studio production in the vein of TWS’s excellent Cannery Row adaptation, The Time of Your Life is a dialogue-driven ensemble piece that seamlessly intertwines various subplots and conflicts without making them feel like subplots.
At the play’s center sits Joe (David Parker), a mysteriously rich alcoholic who seems to be justifying his habit of drinking champagne all day every day as some manner of bizarre social experiment. Joe is trying to live a good, moral life by stepping in and helping the hapless patrons of the bar with the wad of bills in his pocket. It’s the altruistic but half-baked philosophy of a drunk, and as a result the play’s moral center constantly seems to be listing off its stool.
Of course this is what makes the play so engrossing. Parker is amazing as Joe and he’s supported by a wonderful cast of heroic fools. At his beck and call is the dim-witted, good-hearted Tom, played beautifully by Bumper Metcalfe. Tom has no prospects and little common sense, but keeps busy running surreal, mostly meaningless errands for Joe. When he falls in love with an unhinged local whore named Kitty Duvall (Dawn Flood), Joe is forced to get more involved.
Of course, as he gets involved emotionally, he loses the removed calm and champagne good cheer that has protected him from the emotional mud constantly flung around the bar. Suddenly he’s having to actually get out of his chair to help move the weepy Duvall into the St. Francis Hotel and find work for Tom as a truck driver.
Meanwhile a large cast of wonderfully drawn and acted characters parade through the bar. Highlights include the wickedly good Jeffrey T. Heyer as Blick, a debased vice-squad cop out to abuse streetwalkers; Tom Kiatta as Nick, the good-natured bar owner who tries to protect his customers and hire down-on-their-luck performers (regardless of their talent); William J. Wolak as Kit Carson, a buckskin-clad old-timer who very nearly steals the show with his wild stories of herding bison on bicycles and busting accordians over heads; and Keith Decker as McCarthy, the intellectual longshoreman with a golden, delightfully absurd and wise line of reasoning.
But that’s really just the beginning. There are more than a dozen other, equally engaging characters and it’s the brevity and gravity of their appearances that make the play such a rich treat. From an inscrutable Arab hunkering at the end of the bar to a miraculously unfunny comedian, a destitute piano player, a slumming socialite couple, sailors, streetwalkers, a lovelorn cad and his saintly fiancée, a newsboy, a melancholy housewife, a conflicted cop and the requisite drunkard, The Time of Your Life is populated with a treasure trove of drama and easy-going philosophy.
Yet, the play is set on the precipice of World War II and even though Saroyan could not have possibly known how the world was preparing to fundamentally change in 1939, he sensed it, and the play seems to suggest this. There is a fresh innocence that permeates the play up until the point where a revolver enters from stage left. Needless to say, Saroyan gamely follows Chekhov’s theatrical rule—if a gun is introduced in a plot, it must be fired by curtain’s close.
It’s a fitting end to the play, a foreshadowing of the violence looming in America’s near-future, and proof positive that Saroyan didn’t deserve the harsh treatment he received from critics who accused him of ignoring the critical issues of the time. Criticism which, coupled with the fact that Saroyan actually turned down the Pulitzer because he didn’t believe in “institutional support for the arts,” probably explains why you may not have heard of the man despite the fact that he was born in Fresno and lived in San Francisco until his death in 1981.
Fortunately, Saroyan is enjoying a revival and The Western Stage’s marvelous production is the best possible introduction to his work. Boasting flawless direction by Chris Graham and a truly remarkable set design by Lynne Willis that must be seen to be appreciated for its realism and historic attention to detail, The Time of Your Life is the first must-see production of the 2006 theater season.
THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE plays through July 2 in the Studio Theater at the Hartnell College Performing Arts Center. Show times are 8pm Fri-Sat; 2pm Sun. Tickets are $20/general; $16/seniors, juniors and military. For more information call 375-2111 or visit westernstage.com.