Rick Mokler retired last month after 20 years as a director, instructor and later the head of the Theater Department at SBCC. A great number of local actors worked under his tutelage, and Santa Barbara theatergoers, whether they know it or not, continue to encounter his graduates at Center Stage, Rubicon and beyond. So his swan song, Alan Ayckbourn’s “Time of My Life,” can only take on added depth with its comic examination of time, nostalgia, memory and appreciating the here and now.
“Time” dates from 1992, and is one of Ayckbourn’s lesser-known plays, yet it employs the same kind of time-jumping formalism as “Absurd Person Singular” and “Bedroom Farce.” The center of events is a 54th birthday dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant for Stratton family matriarch Laura (Katie Thatcher), surrounded by her husband Gerry (Jon Koons), her son Glyn (Brian Harwell) and his wife Stephanie (Leesa Beck), and her other, younger son Adam (Josh Jenkins) and his date Maureen (Marisa Welby-Maiani).
From there, the play zigzags between the end of the evening, where Laura and Gerry hash out their rocky marriage; a series of dinners between Glyn and Stephanie in the year following the birthday party (and its tragic end); and another series of dinners told in reverse order following Adam and Maureen’s courtship from meet-the-parents jitters to their first, accidental meeting.
Mr. Mokler has assembled a cast of favorites, while introducing two new faces in Ms. Beck and Ms. Welby-Maiani). He has shifted the action from middle-class England to middle-class America, and has changed the restaurant from an Italian joint in the original to a Chinese restaurant. This is mainly to hand over five comic relief roles to Ed Lee, another Mokler regular, who plays several different waiters and owners of the restaurant. This necessitates what must be lightning-fast costume and makeup changes behind stage, and Lee never fails to get a laugh, whether as a surly waiter, an old man with a mop, the kind but drunk owner, or an odd bucktoothed — no kidding — gentleman who serenades Maureen.
The play is such fun that Ayckbourn’s more serious thoughts face the danger of being overlooked. As one character posits, we are too busy either worrying about the future or thinking about the past to enjoy the present moment. But as Ayckbourn rebuts, those present moments aren’t overflowing with joy either, surrounded as we are by people who are not in the moment.
Ayckbourn further complicates this with a play structure that depends on us holding past and future moments in our mind. The giddy excitement of Adam and Maureen’s courtship is tempered by our knowledge of her future embarrassment at the birthday party, and we learn more about their fate through Glyn and Stephanie’s meetings.
And yet, we can delight in these characters, brought to life in some extraordinary performances. First of all would be Brian Harwell’s Glyn. Early indications, from Glyn’s early lines to Harwell’s stage history, suggest a comic performance, but as serial adulterer Glyn watches his life fall apart once more after a tenuous reconciliation with his wife, Mr. Harwell dives deeper into this character. Glyn seems to shrink before our eyes as Stephanie rises from despair, and the hurt is palpable.
Josh Jenkins was a bit too brash in his supporting role last year in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” but here his petulance and manic energy suits Adam well. His scenes with Welby-Maiani roll along with vim and dynamism. Elsewhere, he shows a comic physicality, especially when coupled with an atrocious plaid suit. As he is off to Asuza Pacific for further study after this production, we might just see him on the screen next.
Ms. Welby-Maiani also makes a perfect comic foil, taking on an assortment of horrendous wigs, but keeping Maureen grounded in reality, as desperate and silly as that reality might be. Ms. Beck’s Stephanie starts off as all surface, but as the play develops, so does her portrayal. Beck winds up giving us the most rounded character out of all of them.
As the Strattons, Jon Koons and Katie Thatcher get to be a stage couple once more after “The Lady and the Clarinet” in 2003, and here they bicker and spat, and as actors, they obviously have a good time twisting their knives in each other. Laura Stratton is not the most likable person — in fact she’s horrid — but Ms. Thatcher’s portrayal makes us want to believe her cynical view on life. She’s right about her children, but that doesn’t make her pleasant. Mr. Koons plays his faded, American aristocrat father very well.
Mr. Mokler says in his production notes that he’ll return to direct, just not as often. He is retired after all. But if this is his official swan song, so be it. It’s a fitting close to a career, and Santa Barbara will miss him.