Don’t know if it’s intentional, but two of Soulpepper’s current offerings look at the American experience in two contrasting time periods.
Both Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938) and William Saroyan’s The Time Of Your Life (1939) won the Pulitzer Prize. Staged only a year apart, they sit very differently with an audience.
This is Soulpepper’s third incarnation of Our Town. Last time around it opened the Young Centre, and then, as now, artistic director Albert Schultz (playing the Stage Manager) begins the show by patting the brick wall at the back of the stage, an almost ritualistic gesture of connection between actor and theatre space. It’s also a gesture for luck, and it pays off.
Wilde’s play is an amazing piece for its time, a postmodern work (before that phrase was invented, I imagine) that calls attention to itself as a play and manages at the same time to touch an audience’s emotions, make us believe in the characters conjured up on the stage. Set in the first years of the 20th century, it has an underlying sadness that never lets us forget – despite the play’s laughs and joys – the death that we will all face one day.
The cast includes some of Soulpepper’s best ensemble performers – Nancy Palk, Oliver Dennis, Jane Spidell and John Jarvis as two sets of parents, Jeff Lillico as the young and innocent George Gibbs and Diego Matamoros as a prof who gives us a history of the New Hampshire town where the play is set. Director Joe Ziegler catches the seemingly contradictory blend of simplicity and depth in the text. It’s a show worth seeing again.
The rarely done Saroyan, with an even larger cast, is a more scattered production. Part of the problem is the script, which has at time a sentimental quality that becomes a barrier to our connecting with its characters. Also, some characters come and go so quickly that we have little sense of their story.
Central to the action is the figure of Joe (Ziegler), a dispenser of wisdom and philosophy in the San Francisco bar where the action takes place. This is a world where violence is just offstage, in the form of an imminent strike around the corner or Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Ziegler knows just how to play the nuances in the not always likable Joe, and he gets great support from Kevin Bundy as his not-too-bright sidekick Tom.
There are some other fine performances, including Patricia Fagan as a prostitute who yearns for a better life, Lillico as a wannabe dance performer (notice how little time he actually stands still onstage), Derek Boyes as the bar’s sympathetic owner and a shaggy Stuart Hughes as Kit Carson, who can’t stop spinning tall tales.
Also worth watching are Denzal Sinclaire as a starving man who earns his meal playing the piano and Spidell and Jarvis as a slumming society couple.
Under Schultz’s direction, the first act sometimes loses the story’s tension, but the second act finds its stride. By the play’s end there’s a fine dramatic tension that pulls viewers into the lives and hearts of the characters.
Both productions have just been held over, Our Town to August 18 and The Time Of Your Life to August 17.