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Theater: The Time of Your Life
Online Special
by Mary Shen Barnidge

Playwright: William Saroyan. At: Provision Theater at the Viaduct, 3111 N. Western. Phone: 773-506-4429; $25. Runs through: March 2

'It takes a lot of rehearsing for a man to be himself,' declares the mysterious boulevardier with the crippled leg and a thirst for fine champagne calling himself only 'Joe'. And therein lies the appeal that has made this 1939 portrait of a tavern on San Francisco's waterfront into an American classic. In a single evening, we will meet a cross-section of our society as it existed in the volatile period between the Great Depression and the war in Europe. Some of its citizens have found their bliss, some still struggle to follow theirs, and some discover their destiny this very night, but every culture and subculture is represented in William Saroyan's inclusive vision.

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The creation of an entire universe is a lengthy proposition, however, and a production utilizing the uncut text could easily run to three or even four hours. But Provision Theater is nothing if not considerate of its patrons and, to that end, director Joseph Slowik has winnowed the verbal sprawl to a tidy two hours without compromising the vivid panorama of characters diverse of fortunes, but unanimous in their regard for such fundamental human values as tolerance for one another's differences, eagerness to assist in times of trouble, and repugnance toward bullies who would violate the fragile peace proffered by an imperfect world.

Playgoers connecting this manifesto with the United States taking up arms against Hitler soon after the play's premiere are welcome to their opinions, as are those preferring to snuggle in the nostalgic comfort of John Zuiker's scenic design, with its wooden-cased jukebox, flag-waving pinball machine and wall photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt. What are inarguable are the opportunities offered to actors by the array of personalities conjured by Saroyan, from easy archetypes—lovable palookas, good-girls-gone-wrong, corrupt officials—to such oddballs as the would-be standup comic whose humor predates the ironists by half a century, the pint-sized Irish tenor from Salonika, and the old Arab whose blues find a responsive chord with the Negro pianist.

The 22 cast members assembled for this ambitious project, though mostly too young for their roles, discharge their duties with disciplined aplomb. Timothy Gregory resists the temptation to play the cuddly drunk, instead hinting at the guilt that lies beneath Joe's desperate philanthropy. The supporting players likewise endow their often clumsily conceived personae with compassion and dignity. Look around you now, in 2008, and you'll recognize them.

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