Raven Theatre

When it’s revived with the hard-earned optimism and solid sentiment it deserves, The Time of Your Life remains a theatrical tonic. Wryly wedding moonshine and melodrama, William Saroyan’s 1940 Pulitzer winner is profoundly democratic, dedicated to the daily decency of ordinary folk and to life’s goodness; it comes down firmly against trouble-seeking bullies who try to spoil that gift. Like Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, it’s also an ensemble challenge, packed with two dozen sharply etched characters, many of whom deserve their own plays. In this work atmosphere counts more than action, and poetry outweighs plot.

The wrong director can make The Time of Your Life corny, preachy, and smug. But the right director–and Frank Farrell is one of them–can give this gem a thousand facets. Raven Theatre’s revival offers renewed cause to do and see theater–a fitting achievement for a company noted for its heartfelt productions of vintage American playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Preston Jones, Arthur Miller, and Thornton Wilder.

Set in 1939 on San Francisco’s waterfront, The Time of Your Life celebrates the denizens of Nick’s honky-tonk saloon, peopled by a Whitman-like sampler of tough hookers; unionizing longshoremen; itinerant hoofers, comics, and piano pounders; dreamers and drifters; hope hunters and hard-boiled tramps.

At the center is Joe, a mysterious Christlike figure who boozes to forget his murky past; aided by his simpleminded, good-hearted pal Tom, Joe likes to play with toys, listen over and over to the “Missouri Waltz,” and do good deeds for friends and strangers. Joe preaches an underdog gospel–basically, trust yourself and seize the day. Tolerant to a fault–and he has plenty of faults himself –he believes life means risk: “It takes a lot of rehearsal for a man to be himself.” He befriends Kitty Duval, a girl from Ohio who’s sunk from burlesque to prostitution without abandoning her soap-opera fantasies, and matches her up with Tom. Threatening Joe’s trustful optimism is vice-squad detective Blick, who proves his power by hurting people who can’t hurt him back. Blick stands out so starkly, both morally and aesthetically, that inevitably the thrust of the meandering plot is to get rid of him so that life and the play can go on unmolested.

This production builds on Ben Masterton’s supple musical backdrop, Rebecca Shouse’s Depression-era costumes, and Jack Phend’s meticulous set: the tavern comes complete with classic jukebox, brass rails, pinball table, and stuffed blue marlin. Farrell roots Saroyan’s whimsical flights in a bedrock realism: not one performance from the perfectly cast 18-member ensemble hits a false note, and several sing.

Chuck Spencer’s slow and steady Joe, who changes others but is himself unchanged, combines raw humility and battered humanity. More familiar is Jim O’Heir’s salt-of-the-earth Tom; his instant love for Kitty, here played with hardened hope by JoAnn Montemurro, feels as dramatically right as it is wish fulfilling.

The superb supporting performances are so consistent they shouldn’t be swallowed up in blanket kudos: Deane Clark as the barkeep, fiercely loyal to his patrons; Brian McCaskill as a clumsily womanizing young man, and Liz Fletcher as the nurse who loves him despite her disillusionment about human suffering; Donna Smothers as Joe’s brief soulmate; Bill McGough as a tale-spinning rogue who turns out to be a genuine hero of the west; Ted Rubenstein as a cop who hates the way his job makes him look down on weaker people and suck up to his bosses; Tom Herbstritt, expansively portraying a labor leader with a massive faith in the future; Ron Mace as an ebullient drunk who’s regularly kicked out of the bar but has one grand moment there; Ara Anton Kedjidjian, delightful as a pinball wizard; Henry Andrew Caporoso, the supple pianist; Michael Sommers, warm and wacky as a street philosopher; Mark Moritz, hilarious as a dancer with no rhythm and a comic with no jokes; 15-year-old David Jenkins as an eager Greek newsboy singing Irish airs; Esther McCormick as a slumming lady delighted to find herself in a dive; and Ray Hughes, rightly repellent as odious Blick.

We may not deserve this play, but we sure can use it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sara Levinson.