Time and the Conways at the Old Globe

Time and the Conways

J.B. Priestley’s 1937 drama is not a great play. But it’s a haunter. The Old Globe’s excellent cast probably won’t have too many standing ovations because the spell doesn’t break until long after the curtain call.

Priestley studied time the way the faithful study religion. His coffee-table book, Man and Time, offers a guided tour through various philosophies on the subject, and, in part two, a “Dream Bank” of personal accounts: ESP, glimpses of the past and “precognitive warnings” of the future.

Priestley says there are kinds of time. One is linear, clock-time that moves forward. The other partakes of synchronicity; everything happens at once.

Thornton Wilder uses the latter in The Skin of Our Teeth, where the Antrobus family finds themselves in the Ice Age and, later, have a dinosaur in the sitting room.

Time and the Conways presents both. It begins in 1919, just after the “war to end all wars” ended. It’s back-stage at Kay’s 21st birthday party. The five Conway sisters and brother Alan don goofy costumes and play charades — which they pronounce “sha-rods” — in their elegant villa in Newlingham, England.

Though some, like Kay and young Carol, utter Dream Bank premonitions, hopes are fresh. Courtships abound. Love is in the air.

The Globe actors perform on Neil Patel’s sleek, stark-white, box set (typical of the period). At the end of Act one, the set recedes, like Time itself. And a second set, a mirror of the first, only older and more tattered, appears on a mini-thrust stage.

Nineteen years have passed. Kay is now 40 and not the novelist she aspired to be. World War II is just around the corner.

The set for Act one remains in the background, like a parallel universe or an emblem of “synchronic” time. Soon it becomes clear why young ebullient Carol lies on the 1919 couch.

In 1938, the Conways’ aspirations have declined, but in different ways. Joan, Hazel, and Hazel’s gravel-hearted husband Ernest should have been more careful what they wished for. Stately, egocentric Mrs. Conway and favorite son Robin frittered away their inheritance and face the consequences. And “dull,” stuttering Alan’s a philosopher.

Act three harkens back to 1919. The party’s almost over. With subtle links, sly hints, and the hindsight gained from Act two, Priestly reveals the seeds of disillusion in the dreamers’ wishes.

The characters are sketchily drawn: they are this way; they are that way; they are this/that way. Along with Patel’s terrific set, the production’s other standout is director Rebecca Taichman. She creates fluid movement, gracefully sculpted blockings, and deft Chekhovian nuances - someone mentions money just as Hazel dons a fur coat; subtle hand gestures; sudden glances – that speak visual volumes.

Shakespeare called Time “envious and calumniating” and a “great-sized monster of ingratitudes.” So do most of Priestley’s characters as they move forward.

But maybe it isn’t, as Alan says, not if you see the big, synchronic picture.

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When I saw this it was still in previews, so there may have been a couple of adjustments here and there, but it doesn't sound like there was a substantial difference.

At any rate, I keep thinking of the pivotal moments, when kindness vs. unkindness set the stage for smoldering anger and heartlessness. The power shifts from the solid upper-middle class family to a more entrepreneurial sort of person, with some adapting better than others. The mother holds onto power in ways that thwart the growth and futures of her children, the kindest child dies young.

On the one hand, this could be a metaphor for English society of the time--one generation already torn apart from WW I, now facing what would be WW II, and who knows what further devastation. (No wonder documentaries about WW II always mention the resilience of the British people).

I thought the production at the Old Globe was excellent: great casting, strong acting, beautifully done sets and costumes. But what strikes me most again are those pivotal moments--when the mother laughs away what could have been a burgeoning romance between a daughter and an attorney friend, when the mother's narcissism negatively effects all those around.

The parent's goal is to have healthy offspring, who bring forth the best for the next generation...when we look at larger issues, with society as the parent, it is important to realize what a crippling disease narcissism is. Because narcissism does not allow growth or moving forward, just a commanding attention that may be riveting short term but is paralyzing long term.

Which brings me to the subject of the San Diego Opera. Why wouldn't Ian Campbell bring on the next generation of directors, both artistic and financial, and hand over a well-run organization? It would not have been impossible to start a process of that nature about 4 - 5 years ago, and then we wouldn't be in this position, scrambling, fighting for livelihoods...

Don't we as a society in the greater sense want to bring out the best, show a responsible appreciation for talent and hard work, for the care and effort it takes to allow the arts to survive? I think we do.

We need to support living, breathing art in our lifetime. We need to encourage people, especially young people to take on this rich heritage. Or we could end up, as a society, as threadbare and bankrupt as the Conways. The moral of the story--of course there is always more than one. Encourage the best in each other is the one I would like to choose.

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