Time and the Conways at UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre
J.B. Priestley's Family Drama has Contemporary Resonance
The time is right for reviving this powerful and intelligent play, which deftly switches between scenes set in 1919 and in 1937. This production, directed by Simon Williams and starring a cast of UCSB BFA students, offers opportunities for advanced acting technique, yet never loses its footing in the world of family struggles and relationships. There are six terrific female roles in the show and three equally fascinating male ones, a ratio that replicates some of the dour realities of the interwar life it portrays.
As Kay Conway, Allison Menzimer finds just the right tone for the resilient, sensitive, and intellectual heroine of the piece, bringing Kay close to the great Shakespearean characters that would appear to have been playwright J.B. Priestley’s models. As the charming and effervescent young Carol Conway, Alexia Dox shines, especially in the energetic opening charades sequence. Maggie Yeomans takes on the demanding role of Madge Conway with superb intensity and singleness of purpose, rendering this difficult character human and believable.
As the matriarch, Mrs. Conway, Erika Lee strikes a suitably grand note. Her special-strength venom is reserved for the wicked Ernest Beevers, played with wit and relish by Alexei Quiros. The extraordinary coincidence that links this play to Santa Barbara historically is described in the program notes. In 1932, Priestley discovered some theatrical gold here-a philosophical treatise that would encourage him to explore the limits of narrative time bending onstage.
Gary Wichansky’s constructivist scenic design is particularly ingenious. It opens, closes, raises, and lowers to serve the action onstage. The cast achieves wonderful things in relation to the very specific and difficult accents required to give the show verisimilitude. Paul Webb and Ben Margalith do the Conway brothers in voices that are at once memorable and pleasing, and Joan Helford is played by Brytni Sarpy with nuance and gusto.
Ultimately, this play is about the tremendous pathos of a civilization facing the threat of extinction, and so it resonates today as much as ever. The Conways may be a playful and even frivolous lot at times, but their way of life carries with it much that we continue to value.