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THEATER REVIEW: “Time And The Conways”

The staging is clever, the costumes elegant, the acting top-drawer in the Old Globe’s revival of J.B. Priestley’s “Time And The Conways.” Rebecca Taichman directs.

But the British accents are sometimes impenetrable and so is (for me) the concept that gives this play its importance in the theatrical world.

In plot terms, it’s an ordinary upper-crust family story portraying the lives and fortunes of the six children of a particularly nasty widow, Mrs. Conway (Kim Martin-Cotten), who has a cutting word or two for almost everyone. The twist is that we see them in two time frames: 1919, in the postwar boom, and 18 years later, in pre-war 1937.

We meet the Conways on daughter Kay’s 21st birthday, in 1919. Kay (Amanda Quaid) is a tall wannabe novelist, one of the lucky ones whose wealth allows her the luxury of writing without the time-wasting hindrance of work. Thus far unsuccessful, wealth also allows her the luxury of this attitude: “I’m never, never going to write except what I want to write, what I feel is true to me, deep down. I won’t write just to please silly people or just to make money.”

Madge (Morgan Hellett) is a no-nonsense (and rather prickly) teacher and a dedicated socialist.

Golden girl Hazel (Rose Hemingway) is the family prize. She’s pretty, looks great in clothes and is expected to marry well.

Robin (Lee Aaron Rosen) has just been released from service in the RAF. He is mom’s favorite and has vague notions of getting into business.

The underestimated Alan lacks looks and drive and still lives at home with mom. He also stammers.

Carol, at 16 the youngest Conway, is, unlike the others, always upbeat and accepting of others.

On this night they are preparing for what appears to be a family birthday tradition – charades, with the help of a box of false mustaches, hats and the like.

We will also meet three guests. Gerald Thornton (Leo Marks), Mrs. Conways’ solicitor, will engage in political discussions with Madge, who dreams of rebuilding the broken world in a new and better mold.

Gerald brings Ernest Beevers (Max Gordon Moore), a shy working-class stiff new in town, with entrepreneurial ambitions and an eye on Hazel (Rose Hemingway), who treats him with disdain.

Finally there’s Joan Helford (Sarah Manton), a pleasant but none too bright girl who will marry Robin Conway (Lee Aaron Rosen).

In the first act, the Conway girls do what we’ve always suspected upper-class girls do: make snide remarks about others. After all, they’ve learned from the master, their Dragon Lady mother.

In the second act, we see the group 18 years later, hopes dashed, promise unfulfilled. The Conways are in a financial hole and England is about to go to war. Nothing has quite worked out the way they’d planned it.

Especially distressed is Kay – who has found it necessary to do exactly what she said she wouldn’t and write about celebrities for popular rags.

She takes some solace in Alan’s notions about time. He subscribes to the theory that one’s life is a consistent whole with only a small portion in view at any moment: “Time doesn’t destroy anything. It merely moves us on – in this life – from one peephole to the next.”

The third act takes us back to Kay’s 1919 birthday party, allowing us to witness the continuum of time.

Priestley became fascinated early in his career with J.W. Dunne’s theory of time as simultaneous rather than consecutive; i.e., that we exist in the past, present and future all at once.

I don’t pretend to understand the concept, but the structure of this play demands that each actor effectively plays two roles. Fortunately, this excellent cast is up to the task.

It’s impossible to single anyone out; all these actors (all but Leo Marks new to the Globe) are spot-on in both incarnations.

Kudos to Neil Patel for the clever set that makes the time change quickly and efficiently with set pieces on tracks and lowered from above.

David Israel Reynoso’s fabulous period costumes are perfect. Scott Zielinski’s moody lighting design and Matt Hubb’s sound design are impeccable as well.

The details

“Time And The Conways” plays through May 4 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.