Well in advance of last weekend’s “The Time of Your Life” at Chapman Auditorium, Tom Loughridge wanted the Panhandle Players to stage the five-act American theatre classic. He first mentioned it to me, as best as I can recall, as we sat on the couches at the Kozlowsky’s house, during the early summer cast party for last season’s closing show. That is where and when we start caring what we choose for the next season.
That Tom cared to a great measure about his suggestion was clear, it seemed to come from a place of near-certainty, not oblivious to but dismissive of the obvious challenges. It would require a large and varied cast, the play set firmly in a time three-quarters of a century ago, how America saw itself approaching the start of a world war. It was written in May 1939, it is set in their present-day, and by the end of Oct. 1939, author William Saroyan’s play was on Broadway, during the very months Hitler began his nation’s conquest of Europe. “The shadow of impending war is over the whole of “Time of Your Life,” Saroyan wrote in his introduction.
Tom closed his private pitch for the play by inviting me to take part, no mention of a part, just a general welcome. I imagine he made several such appeals, winning over one-by-one those whose help he would need if he were to be successful.
In that respect alone, through the power vested in him over a lifetime of teaching, Loughridge last weekend achieved a masterpiece. The 82-year-old director brought together a cast as young as middle and high schoolers, and as old as their parents and grandparents, and all different ones in between, and brought out the best, most vivid and expressive, part of them during their moments on the stage. He was fortunate that Liz Sisung, his assistant director and stage manager, mixed the paints for him.
I was asked to play Blick, “a heel,” the most loathsome character in the play. I am glad Liz asked me; it turned out to be my most fulfilling and enjoyable Players show since I got into it four or five shows ago. Whether Blick illuminated the three audiences of about 150-200 people each time is another question, but he is a good place to begin my observations on Loughridge’s masterpiece. Blick, a detested member of the vice squad, persona non grata in the Frisco dive bar where the show is set, encounters a good preponderance of the dramatis personae in his two on-stage appearances.
First is the owner, Nick, a straight-up no-nonsense barkeep, played convincingly by Jeff Ilardi, who is cut from that same burly and benevolent cloth, as honest and good natured a man as you’ll ever meet. He doesn’t like Blick very much, but he does the people who frequent the bar, most prominent of whom is Joe, a devil-may-care, world-weary rich man slumming it at Nick’s Place. Frederic Kahler was meticulous in his characterization, as Loughridge knew he would be, when we talked Sunday in the dressing room about why he cast Kahler. “ I knew it needed a strong character to carry the show, and I knew he could do it.”
The two younger leads, Megan Shiver and Scott Wilson, were lesser-knowns to Panhandle Players audiences, although both had delighted audiences in the first of the evening of hree one-act plays that opened the 2017-18 season. Wilson complimented Joe’s blowhardness with a skittishness that played well as Tom, Joe’s dutiful and submissive errand-boy (likely suggestive of the Depression era mentality America was climbing out of)
Shiver, blessed with an expressiveness made for the stage, brought a petulant spine to her role as Kitty Duvall, the girl with a murky present, who wishes it were all in her past. From her first sentence after asking for a beer, and overhearing Joe’s ordering around of Tom, “Who the hell is he to push a big man like that around?” to the end, when Blick demands of her a humiliating dance, she captivated.
Playing the piano, in a dusky corner of the set Kahler designed, was Barry Hand, as Wesley, a black man lucky to have a job, even washing dishes, since he isn’t familiar with the ins-and-outs of the union movement that ruled the workplace roost those days. Hand’s moody play at the keyboards helped raise the production to a level it would not have reached had Royce Rolstad or Nico Valenzuela in the sound booth been forced to play recorded music.
Same for another one of the other losers in the bar, Harry, the earnest wannabe entertainer guy who thinks he’s funny and affords the listener ample empty space to think about whether he is or not. Loughridge cast a woman, Joe Ellen Pearman, in the role, and she made the most of her stage debut. The plaintive tone of her raspy voice, the shimmy of her feet, her smile, embodied in a moment what Saroyan's play was saying, made explicit in a line from its preamble, which Loughridge read aloud, in person, at each performance.
“Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man the superior,” he wrote. “Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart.”
The only other members of the cast who qualify for first-timers, high school art teacher Lydia Countryman, as a society dame, and highschoolers James Hatfield as the lovestruck smart-ass Dudley Bostwick, and Greg Riley as Willie, who plays pinball the whole show until he finally wins at the end, did exactly what they had to do.
So did River Sheridan, the Apalachicola Bay Charter School sixth grader, as the newspaperboy, a bit part which afforded the lad a star turn belting out “When Irish Eyes Were Smiling.” I have a hopeful suspicion this may be among the first of many rave reviews to come.
Speaking of indelible but comparatively small, parts, Laura Ward as the Arab, an enigmatic barfly who utters the most memorable line of the play “No foundation, all the way down the line,” a reference to the world beginning to quake beneath the globe’s feet., was perfect. Yes, she had much foundation, with her line.
The rest of the cast were mostly seasoned actors with the community troupe, and while each warrants praise for making Tom’s masterpiece come alive, there may not be room to include it all.
Bob Caiola, as a talkative drunk who tosses about blarney about Wild West exploits that probably never happened, and Hank Kozlowsky, as an incoherent drunk left behind by the wagon long ago, made the bar seem like a bar, and not a stage. Peter Bearse handled two roles well, McCarthy an erudite longshoreman and later a gentleman at the bar, working alongside Doug Rauscher as Krupp, a boyhood friend who is now a waterfront cop. Both were fine additions, to scenes that carried less importance, and which even were in some cases cut back, because of their more dense, dated commentary on art and literature, of less fascination to today’s audience.
As for the women, they ranged from a couple of hos, suavely, sensuously played by Joan Matey and Maria Nichols, to a troubled lady on the verge of divorce (Bobbi Ann Seward) to Lorene (Carole Brazsky), “an unattractive woman” who rushes down to the club to help poor Dudley, who has telephoned her when he really meant to pour out his heart to his fiancée, Elsie Mandelspeigel (Jeana Crozier).
These four women, to close, were four excellent examples of what an actor can do with just a few lines and a character behind it. The Panhandle Players showed there is a broad assortment of such talented people in Franklin (and Gulf) counties, able to make important, thoughtful, moving theatre happen. Mister Tom is to be congratulated for investing in this masterpiece.