Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Alan Ayckbourn has turned the tables on time before, but never so movingly as in this dark comedy, a marvel of ingenuity and insight–as is Michael Maggio’s staging, perfect in casting, timing, and feeling.

The situation is a birthday party being celebrated by a rich but insecure British family–but surrounding this center-stage real-time story are simultaneous scenes set in the same restaurant that spiral back into the past or forward into the future. Heading backward, the feckless younger son finds a love he’ll soon lose; in the future the older brother reaches the same bleak impasse with his wife. Significantly, the central scene is cut off by tragedy: what hurts in Time of My Life is the truth the family grasp too late–despite quarrels and carping, this gathering was a rare happy occasion in their lives, a chance for joy they let pass and can’t regain. Though Ayckbourn delivers the message too blatantly in the last scenes, earlier he conveys it with grace and wit. It all rings true: because theater too is ephemeral, few art forms convey life’s waste and transience as well.

Maggio’s splendid, fully committed cast of seven step smoothly into their stereotypes, then build the characters into people we know. Molly Regan sinks into the mother’s spite without forfeiting her pain. Robert Breuler turns the gruff businessman father into a crusty nonsurvivor. Mariann Mayberry, perfect in every comic detail, vamps up a storm as a gold-digging hairdresser. Sharpest of all is David Alan Novak, impersonating a host of waiters with vaudevillian aplomb.