MUST SEETheatre Reviews

The Time of Your Life

By William Saroyantime-of-your-life-7992

Directed by Kathy Scambiattera

Produced by The Artistic Home, Chicago

A Masterfully Told Story about Hope

Though The Artistic Home has a small space on Grand Avenue, they’re not afraid to fill it up with a massive ensemble for a show that’s worthy of the effort. William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, resembles later plays like The Iceman Cometh and Balm in Gilead in that it depicts odd characters from the margins of society meeting in a bar that’s shady enough to feel safe to them. But while Eugene O’Neill and Lanford Wilson apparently regarded their characters as pitiful or tragic, Saroyan had a hopeful outlook that infused humor into his observations on the denizens of his San Francisco dive. At The Artistic Home, twenty-two actors working with director Kathy Scambiattera shape a world where people have suffered for a long time, but have stubbornly clung to life and a better future.

Kathryn Acosta (Kitty) and Josh Odor (Nick). Photos by Tim Knight

Some of those actors have multiple or major characters, others are present for only a single scene. Two men are the pillars of this amorphous community. One is Nick, the proprietor (Josh Odor), a gruff man who takes pride in welcoming the down-and-out and defending those who can’t protect themselves—within the practical considerations of keeping his bar in business, of course. The other, much more mysterious figure is Joe (Scott Westerman), a laid-back gentleman of leisure whose insatiable appetite for champagne is probably what enables Nick’s kindness. Joe enjoys doing small favors for those around him, and sending his friend Tom (Jae K. Renfrow) out to buy him toys, candy, and whatever other simple pleasures he impulsively fancies. Joe is calm and benevolent, but when pressed, he says frankly that everyone with wealth gained it through hurting someone, and he is very wealthy.

At present, Joe’s pet project is Tom’s romance with Kitty Duval (Kathryn Acosta), a hooker who fools nobody by claiming she used to be a burlesque actress. Kitty is unstable and self-loathing; Tom is passive and dependent. They’re the perfect people for Joe to make his students. But lately, trouble’s been brewing around the homey saloon. There’s a strike on the nearby wharfs which has the potential to turn violent, and odd characters keep blowing in looking for work. Joe and Nick sympathize with them, but now, there’s also a new anti-vice cop, Blick (David Vogel), who’s cracking down on prostitutes. He has it in for Nick, and would love to get something on Kitty.

Scott Westerman (Joe), Frank Nall (Kit Carson), and Jae K. Renfrow (Tom)

This is true ensemble acting. With so many characters, most of them don’t receive a great deal of development from Saroyan, but the actors make use of their time to the fullest. Some stand-outs are Mark Pracht and Shannon Parr as McCarthy and Krupp, a labor activist and a cop who are childhood friends, and memorably debate whether workers like them should revolt or just try to get along. McCarthy quips that every maniac started as a writer, and should have been allowed to remain so. Nick unexpectedly encounters artistic talent in Wesley (Jerome Riley), a young man who nearly fainted from hunger while looking for a job. Riley plays ragtime on a piano in the corner (arrangements and sound design by Zack Berenstein and Joe Cerqua) that immerses the audience in the laid-back buzz of the bar. Joining him is Harry (the rubbery limbed Andy Monson), a would-be poet, dancer, and comedian, whose bizarre, goofy movements provide the show with much of its humor and slight surrealism. “Is that any good?” Krupp asks, regarding Harry’s dancing. “No,” McCarthy replies, but it comes from the heart, and that’s what counts.

Andy Monson (Harry)

The storefront theatre can easily be made to resemble a bar, and Kevin Hagan’s scenic design is full of small touches that give Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant, and Entertainment Palace a humble, but friendly atmosphere. A nice contribution by properties designer Robin Miller is the use of Acme Lager beer bottles, in reference to a historical San Francisco brewery. Seeing and joining fellow audience members lined up on the set to use the venue’s bathroom is a little awkward, but that levity sets the show up well. Scambiaterra has directed the first few minutes so that even though there is almost no dialogue, we get several vivid characterizations, such as the newsboy (Declan Collins) who relies on Joe to purchase his entire stock, and Willie (Joey Swift), an annoyingly peppy pinball enthusiast.

Saroyan’s sympathy is clearly with Nick, who believes that most people are good at heart and deserve kindness. But as the play’s collage of characters whirls on, it becomes clear that Saroyan perceived something, most obviously embodied by Blick, has gone very wrong in America. The cruel authoritarian’s counterpart is Kit Carson (Frank Nall), an aging cowboy and faux-rebel full of tales about his adventures on the frontier, which are mostly just self-aggrandizing lies. Joe encourages him because he finds the stories amusing, but at some point, each of his beneficiaries is going to have to function without his ill-gotten hand-outs. A passage from Saroyan included in the program became one of the most famous quotes in modern American literature, “In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed.…” This production delivers that point so vividly that seventy-six years later, it is still pertinent and inspirational.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

This show has been Jeff recommended.

Playing at The Artist Home, 1376 W Grand Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $28-32; to order, call 1-866-811-4111 or visit the Playing Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm, through October 25. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission.