THEATER REVIEW / 'THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE' : Saroyan Delight : The author's lyrical vision of Nick's Saloon during the Depression is captured by director Barbara Bosch.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"In the time of your life, live--so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it," wrote William Saroyan in his preface to "The Time of Your Life."

True to this manifesto, Saroyan's sprawling, not-conventionally dramatic drama is less of a play than an unabashed homage to romantic sensibility.

Of course, he wrote it in 1939. Anyone who tried that approach nowadays would be sneered right off the stage.

And yet, when we look at Saroyan's world--resurrected in breathtaking detail by director Barbara Bosch at the UC Santa Barbara Main Theatre--we don't find some glossed-over, idealized vision of humanity so easily dismissed in the face of cynical realities.

Instead, Saroyan confronted harsh realities head-on. His play is set in Nick's Saloon in downtown San Francisco at a time of social fragmentation not so far removed from our own. Amid the Great Depression, America is poised on the brink of entering World War II, and uncertainty weighs heavily on the dreams of the 30 characters who parade through Nick's--a cross-section of every social strata, the homeless and the affluent, sailors and comedians, prostitutes and police. They are all trying to cope with a world gone mad. One of Nick's hollow-eyed customers sums it up in a thick Arab accent: "No foundation."

But where we might expect to see ruthless opportunism run rampant, most of these people aim for more than survival--they're all trying, in one way or another, to get by with some measure of their human dignity intact.

Helping them wherever possible is Joe (Mark Ringer), an affable, pin-striped Santa Claus with a seemingly endless wad of ready cash and an inexhaustible curiosity about life. With an unerring instinct for the appropriate moment, he sends his apprentice Tom (Jason Cottle) to procure whatever's needed--from a bag of toys to bets on winning horses to a loaded gun.

Despite some moments of confrontation and conflict, Saroyan's thesis remains unshakable--that people are inherently good and, when they behave otherwise, it's through circumstance and not by nature. "Every one of them is wonderful," Joe says. And he really believes it.

In a romantic context, of course, romance blooms prominently. In one of the main subplots, Joe rescues a prostitute (played with simple nobility by Ellen Margolis) and pairs her up with the instantly smitten Tom. A pair of separated lovers (Eric Kaufman and Erika Diamond) reconcile despite their reservations. And the most heartfelt scene is where a married woman (Kerry Neel) comes briefly into the bar and strikes up a conversation with Joe in which they discover a common Irish ancestry and mutual affection--a beautifully played scene that aches with fleeting human contact.

Coaxing these well-rendered emotional moments from this enormous cast of dramatic arts students is a genuine triumph for Bosch. Not only has she captured the right tone in each of the encounters, but she unfolds the piece at a lyrical pace well-suited to Saroyan's poetic dialogue-- letting the powerful moments sink into their proper depth without dragging the momentum.

Bosch has also succeeded in evoking the look and feel of the period, thanks in large part to costume designer Barbara Lackner's seemingly limitless period wardrobe.

Just as important is scenic designer Jay Michael Jagim's eye-popping set for Nick's Saloon, which breaks the action into discretely angled segments, including the wood-paneled bar, an antique pinball machine, a piano and miniature stage for the entertainment, and even a classic pay phone with rotary dial and fixed mouthpiece. Adding the proper romantic glow to the proceedings is Patricia L. Frank's amber-hued lighting.

Normally, the technical side of a production is unobtrusively supportive, but it's impossible to resist drooling over this one--"The Time of Your Life" looks as good as it plays.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"The Time of Your Life." Performed at the UC Santa Barbara Main Theatre today through Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Call 893-3535 for reservations or information.

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