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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Vibrant Production of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life


Also see Richard's reviews of A Man of No Importance
and The Carpetbagger's Children

The Time of Your Life
Howard Witt and Jeff Perry
There has always been something that I loved about William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company (currently at the American Conservatory Theatre) production is the most vibrant that I have seen. This is an exquisite presentation of the playwright's greatest masterwork. The prose-poetry language is beautifully performed by an ensemble of 24 actors.

The Time of Your Life opened at the Booth Theatre on October 25, 1939, just after World War II started. It had a dream cast with of Eddie Dowling, Edward Andrews, Gene Kelly, Celeste Holm and William Bendix. The critics were mystified by the play since it was idealistic and the prose-poetry by the playwright confronted them. The critics said people just did not speak this way. The play received the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but William Saroyan refused to accept award saying that art could not be patronized by wealth. The Broadway production played for 185 performances.

My first experience with the play was when I was still a novice in Hollywood working at Republic Studios. Though James Cagney had wanted desperately to film the play, most major studios were afraid to produce a "static idealistic" play. The actor purchased the play and filmed it on one sound stage through his own production company, Cagney Productions, playing the role of Joe himself. I often sneaked out and watched the filming. The box office receipts were poor but it remains one of the most underrated film classics of our time. I fell in love with the play and I still watch the film with a great performance by James Barton playing Kit Carson - one of the greatest performances of '40s films, as far as I am concerned.

The Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center did a splendid revival in November 1969 which ran for 52 performances. I saw James Broderick play Joe, surrounded against by a sterling cast of Philip Bosco, Leonard Frey (playing the dancer Harry) and Biff McGuire. The Acting Company did a brief revival at the Harkness Theatre in 1975 with Nicholas Surovy playing Joe. The idealistic production also played on PBS in 1976 with a young Patti LuPone playing the "two bit whore" Kitty Duval. There was also a production for the BBC in 1958 with Dan Daily playing Joe and Ann Sheridan as Kitty. That tape is now lost, unfortunately.

The Time of Your Life is a co-production of Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago where it opened in October 2002 and received rave reviews from the critics. The Seattle Repertory played the production early this year with the same design team and many of the actors playing their roles again. This same team of designers and actors are now mesmerizing the audiences at the Geary Theatre.

William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize winning communal fable offers many pleasures. The large ensemble cast of both Chicago and local actors has reached epic status in this superb, moving production.

The Time of Your Life takes place in a San Francisco waterfront dive bar with various interesting characters coming and going during the 2 hour 45 minute production. There is action everywhere on the large and extended set. The wonderful, authentic bar has its assortments of drunkards, dreamers, longshoremen and drifters. There is a young man who spends his days trying to beat the bar's pinball machine (Ramiz Monsef), a young over-excited lover (Darrah Kennan) desperately trying to telephone his girlfriend to ask her to come to the bar, a wonderful character dressed in buckskins called Kit Carson (Howard Witt) who talks about being in a hurricane in Toledo and herding cattle on a bicycle, a lonely married woman with two children who comes into the bar for some companionship, a poetic longshoreman (Andy Murray), a bewildered cop (Guy Van Swearingen), an unfunny comedian named Harry (Guy Atkins) who also does eccentric tap dancing, a sweet black piano player (Don Shell) looking for work, an elderly Armenian immigrate (Robert Ernst) who has worked all of his life and keeps saying "You must have foundation," a drunk (Ron Gnapp) with no money who somehow gets free drinks when the bar owner Nick (Yasen Peyankov) leaves for a moment to play the horses, and a wonderful "two bit whore" named Kitty Duval (Mariann Mayberry).

In the center of all of this is Joe (Jeff Perry), a man who made his money by mysterious means. He does not have to be in the downtrodden bar, but he is a man of high-minded intelligence and he wants to hold on to the simple pleasures of life and to the undemanding people around him. He has a "gofer," Tom (Patrick New), who does crazy errands for him such as buying $2 worth of toys from Emporium or $2 worth of chewing gum with all the flavors Tom can find.

Jeff Perry is extraordinary as the sad-eyed Joe with dollars to spend who tries to retrieve his lost childhood. He gives this remarkable performance mostly sitting at a table in the barroom. One of the most joyful moments is the gum chewing contest Tom. Patrick New's performance is a perfect foil for the guardian angel-like figure of Joe. Howard Witt, playing the pivotal role of Kit Carson, is hilarious as a spinner of surreal tall tales. Mary Mayberry gives a heartrending performance as Kitty. Guy Adkins gives a powerhouse musical theater performance as a great dancer and singer, Harry. His renditions of "I Won't Dance" and other standards are great enough to almost make this play a musical. The whole cast is amazing, including those characters who are downtrodden, wandering in the back of the large stage.

Both G. W. Mercier's staging and Tina Landau' direction are breathtaking. This is the best set since Buz Luhrmann's La Boheme. The production uses not only the whole stage but two dress circle boxes on the upper right level of the theater. There is a giant I-beam extending from the scaffolds that front the rear wall to the edge of the balcony. A large crane rises from center stage almost into the audience. The box seats have been turned into brothels with great detail in each box. There is even an artist painting a gigantic mural at the rear of the stage that will be completed by the end of the run. All of this is taking place as the audience enters the theater and it continues during the intermission.

The Time of Your Life runs through April 25 at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St, San Francisco, Ca. Tickets can be obtained by calling the box office at 415-749-2228 or going to www.act-sf.org.

ACT's next production is Constance Congdon's A Mother starring Olympia Dukakis opening on May 13th. An Evening with Carol Channing will be appear there on April 11 and 12th for two performances only.


Photo: Chris Bennion


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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