The rap against William Saroyan, an American playwright long regarded as inferior to such contemporaries as George S. Kaufman, Maxwell Anderson and Liliian Hellman, is that he penned mawkish pastiches celebrating the spirit of working stiffs with wacky personalities. But in a startlingly revisionist, fascinating and consistently moving production for Chi’s Steppenwolf Theater, director Tina Landau manages to elevate the rarely revived “The Time of Your Life” to epic status. And since the work was penned when America was on the brink of another war, Landau even throws in some unimistakable references to the current unease about Iraq. It affords Saroyan the status of sage clairvoyant — and gives this show a telling contemporary bite.
Always something of a poet of the broken-hearted, Saroyan approached “The Time of Your Life” in a decidedly musical fashion. In Landau’s hands, the show feels almost like a full-blown musical made up of standards of the late ’30s. One of the major characters, Guy Adkins’ Harry, is a wannabe cabaret singer; he serves as a kind of narrator for the events of the night, as Landau fuses her production with a cornucopia of American song. The play becomes a poignant musical tone poem.
Set in a San Fransisco wharf-front saloon, the play is a collection of character studies. Bartender Nick (Yasen Peyankov) presides over both slumming members of the bourgeoisie and various good-natured working folk — from the sweet cabaret performer with hopeless ambitions to a young African-American struggling to stay alive. The topic of the night is dreams, broken and otherwise, all played out in the great American melting pot, where passions are constrained by prejudice and where economic reality limits all.
The most moneyed character is Joe (Jeff Perry), a sad-eyed man who drops dollars, knocks back booze and tries to reclaim some kind of lost childhood. There’s also a doe-eyed hooker (played beautifully by Heather Anne Prete), a sycophantic young man named Tom (Patrick New) who’s in love with her and various other archetypes of the saloon. Eventually the play turns to an intrusive vice cop to provide the conclusionary dramatic tension. It’s the weakest element of the play — and feels as if Saroyan was desperately seeking some way to bring things to a head.
But Steppenwolf’s legendary acting prowess is firing on all cylinders here, even though the illness of actor Howard Witt means the show suffers from a last-minute cast change in the pivotal role of Kit Carson (now played, haltingly on opening, by Rick Snyder). The taciturn but gripping Perry, one of the theater’s co-founders, is simply extraordinary in the lead role of Joe. Amy Morton (of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is equally powerful in a small role. And while Adkins makes bold broad choices in the role of the poor singer, he’s a dreamy, intoxicating presence and an ideal foil for Peyankov’s guttural barkeep.
Commercial producers with an eye on the show would have to deal with the massive cast size of 24. And the show’s dreamy sensibility requires an audience with patience, willing to ponder quiet truths. But this is the best Steppenwolf production in quite some time — and again demonstrates Landau is at her best when reinvigorating serious period American fare.