Seattle Rep finds the lyrical heart of Saroyan’s ‘Time of Your Life’

The San Francisco Chronicle

Seattle Rep finds the lyrical heart of Saroyan’s epochal ‘Time of
Your Life’

by Robert Hurwitt


The Time of Your Life: Drama. By William Saroyan. Directed by Tina
Landau. (Through April 25. Steppenwolf Theatre Company at American
Conservatory Theater, Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.
Two hours, 40 minutes. Tickets $20-$73. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit


“In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you
shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile
to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

William Saroyan could be pompous to an irritating degree. But that
final commandment from his Credo for “The Time of Your Life” — the
whole text printed on a placard that looms above the action at the
Geary Theater — sums up the glory of Tina Landau’s exquisite
Steppenwolf Theatre Company production.

Life spills from the stage and out across the house. The ugly beauty
of wasted lives and tawdry dreams, the compelling poetry of
commonplace cruelties and kindnesses, missteps, hollow boasts, lies
and tiny leaps of faith fill the theater in an exhilaratingly chaotic
concoction of the real and the theatrical.

Landau’s vibrant revival attracted national attention when it opened
at Chicago’s Steppenwolf in 2002, and it’s easy to see why. Her
remounted version, which opened Sunday at the Geary, is a
co-production between the American Conservatory Theater and Seattle
Repertory (where it played earlier this year) with the same design
team and a cast made up of actors from all three cities.

It’s a vision right out of a 1930s Thomas Hart Benton mural — with
all its intercut shards of scenes vying for attention — but alive
with song, dance, drinking and chatter. Saroyan’s San Francisco
waterfront dive spreads across the stage as both a real location and
a theatrical construct in G.W. Mercier’s stunning set. A giant I-beam
girder extends out from the scaffolds in front of the bare rear wall
to the edge of a balcony. A crane rises from center stage, and box
seats have been turned into a brothel.

There’s action everywhere, starting a half hour before curtain time
and running throughout the play and the intermission — with single
and multiple scenes creatively isolated in Scott Zielinski’s complex,
dynamic lighting. There’s even a mural in progress, a little more to
be filled in at each performance during the run. And there’s music, a
constant accompaniment of period (and not) songs and original music
by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen emanating from the upright piano
and stopping the action for a solo or ensemble number.

Written in six days and dedicated to theater critic George Jean
Nathan (who helped get it produced), “Life” confounded critics and
audiences in ’39 but has remained popular ever since. (It was, as
Saroyan wrote of his first play, a “landmark or turning-point in the
American theater, and it doesn’t matter very much that I was the
first to say so.”)

Its central action is almost an old-fashioned melodrama: Boy loves
girl. Evil villain threatens heroine. True love triumphs. In “Life,”
though, the hero is the goodhearted, simple-minded errand boy Tom
(the beaming, vital Patrick New). His beloved is the sweet, sad,
luckless hooker Kitty Duval (an achingly poignant Mariann Mayberry).
And the villain is the vice squad cop, Blick (Lawrence MacGowan as a
thoroughgoing petty bully).

Saroyan twists the tale by making the central character its guardian
angel, Joe, the barroom philosopher who spends his days drinking as
he tries to understand life, forget his money (all wealth, he
explains, is theft) and help anyone he can. As played by Steppenwolf
co-founder Jeff Perry, he’s a magnetic, gimlet-eyed dreamer, rapt in
faraway musings, awkwardly peremptory and endlessly fascinated by
every lonely soul he meets. He provides an irresistible focal point
that radiates attention on every other character.

That’s essential because the beating heart of Saroyan’s play is its
rich trove of comic and affecting saloon denizens. Every one is
expertly depicted by Landau’s large ensemble in the period-perfect
costumes by James Schuette.

Some are major players: Yasen Peyankov’s crisp, no-nonsense friendly
Nick, the Greek owner; Don Shell’s gentle, sweet-voiced black piano
player; Guy Adkins’ comically eccentric dancer and unfunny would-be
comedian (a role originally played by Gene Kelly); the superb Howard
Witt as the buckskin-clad, gravel-voiced spinner of hilariously
surreal tall tales called Kit Carson.

Others are minor roles that shine in bright cameos: Robert Ernst’s
sonorous, morose Armenian; Andy Murray’s polemical longshoreman; Guy
Van Swearingen’s conscience-stricken cop; Rod Gnapp’s cagey drunk;
the blithely mismatched lovers of the manically smitten, overexcited
Darragh Kennan and cynical-practical Kyra Himmelbaum.

The performances alone would make this a first-rate “Life.” Landau
enhances their effect with the uneasy stillnesses and abrupt
eruptions in her inspired orchestration of the action. She enlarges
and elevates it with the interplay of subsidiary scenes in the
brothel, on the scaffolds or in the street beyond Nick’s bar —
bringing to life Saroyan’s suggested exterior world of street fights,
Salvation Army rallies and a tense dock strike.

Her “Life” is as sweetly humanitarian, bracingly skeptical, richly
comic and poignantly uplifting as Saroyan could wish. But it’s also
an exciting and energizing, multi-splendor affirmation of life.

E-mail Robert Hurwitt at [email protected].

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, Barroom philosopher Joe (Jeff Perry, seated)
affectionately touches bartender Nick (Yasen Peyankov) in “The Time
of Your Life.” / Brant Ward / The Chronicle