I was struck by the similarity in tone and back-story of J.B. Priestley’s “Time and the Conways”, now on stage at The Old Globe Theatre and Julian Fellowes’ highly successful PBS –TV series “Downtown Abbey”. Both stories have characters who come to grips with an England in transition between Europe’s two great wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945). Both examine the changes affecting a society and its social structure and its future. World War I is over. Life changing choices have to be made. The air is filled with uncertainty. The upper classes keep waiting for the good old days to return all the while ignoring the reality of their situation and a future that fails to register with them. And World War II is just around the corner.
In Priestley’s 1937 prescient play, the melodramatic story of the Conway family, and its siblings, comes in for some incisive scrutiny under director Rebecca Taichman’s sharp and probing direction. Granted the source material is a solid blueprint to follow, but each character, and there are ten of them, is so sharply drawn that it’s a piece of cake to become fully engaged in their stories. Good writing ninety percent of the time will produce wonderful performances, and, at least for me, will always trump on stage “theatrical pyrotechnics”, with rare exceptions, of course – “War Horse” being one.
Taichman’s cast is truly an ensemble effort because their stories and performances unfold so seamlessly. There isn’t a false note struck among this excellent group of actors that include both Brits and Yanks. Occasionally, I play a mental game of trying to discern the nationalities of a cast. In this production it wasn’t necessary. I was being treated by a group of consummate actors just doing their jobs.
Kim Martin-Cotton as Mrs. Conway, the family matriarch sets the tone of play. She is pining for the good old days, when the upper classes sat around all day, reading, tending to their gardens, horseback riding, drinking tea, or shopping for more clothes than they could wear. Her children, however, are a bit of a mixed bag of personalities: There is Adam the somewhat fey older brother of the family, played to perfection by Jonathan Fielding. His curtain speeches in acts one and two are haunting in their delivery; Kay, a strong independent thinker and the conscious of the family is solidly played by Amanda Quaid; Madge, the socialist-leaning, frustrated quasi- political sister, is excellent in becoming the bitter “old maid” of the family; Rose Hemingway as Hazel Conway, the haughty glamour queen who never in a million years would ever be drawn to Ernest Beevers, a slightly rough-about-the-edges Yorkshire-man of the land, is deliciously played by Max Gordon Moore, and yes, they get married. Leanne Agmon, as Carol the youngest of the siblings, and Robin Conway, Mrs. Conway’s choice to lead the family and its fortunes back to its glory days is played by Lee Aaron Rosen. Two outsiders, Joan Helford a giddy and flighty friend of the family who has caught the eye of Robin, is nicely portrayed by Sarah Manton, who ultimately captures her man, as well. Gerald Thornton, family lawyer and family friend is urbanely, and sophisticatedly played Leo Marks. It’s a tight and cohesive cast who work as though they are the ten musketeers, instead of the usual three.
Rebecca Taichman is a director with an eclectic flair when it comes her projects. I reviewed her production of “Sleeping Beauty Awakes” at the La Jolla Playhouse, but didn’t fall under her spell. In “Time and the Conways”, I took a bite of that apple from Sleeping Beauty, and now I’m under her spell. It’s a recipe for great production: outstanding cast, inspired direction, and solid source material.
The creative team led by Taichman is first-rate as well: The absolutely gorgeous Set Design by Neil Patel is a visual feast for the eyes, as is the spot-on costumes of the period designed by David Israel Reynoso. Thanks to the skills of lighting designer Scott Zielinksi, we can appreciate the costumes and lushness of an English manor house of the period. Once again, vocal coach Jan Gist’s clever fingerprints are invisible but very apparent.
“Time and the Conways”, directed by Rebecca Taichman is the type of production that just glows and then soars from the footlights; once again underscoring the strength of the Old Globe and its technical mastery of theatre production. The production runs through May 4, 2014.