All of us have been at family affairs that turned sour and blew up into chaotic arguments, stormy feelings and hurt. With a bit of understanding and much love, the issues are eventually resolved. Family members sometimes come to realize that the arguments demonstrate issues buried for years. Brought out in the open, the blockages can then be worked through.
But what happens in situations where there is no sincere or authentic foundation of understanding and love, situations which are not worked through or resolved after the blow up? In Time of My Life, Alan Ayckbourn investigates and lays bare a dysfunctional family during a dinner celebration that goes awry and warps each family member’s sensitivities. Only none of the participants expects that this particular time of their life will be their last get-together. It is. There will be no resolution; there will be no working through with each other. The result is dire and the conclusion is a typical Ayckbourn “stunner.”
When we are first introduced to the upscale Stratton family, father, mother, two sons, and their partners, we cannot help but be impressed by them. They have gathered for mom Laura’s birthday in their favorite restaurant and are happy and in the mood for the celebration. The family operates in harmony and peace and we are lulled into believing that all is well. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Through flashback and flash forward in scenes that date before and after the birthday event, Ayckbourn removes the artificial facade that has moderated this family unit and made it appear to work smoothly. These scenes take place in the family’s favorite restaurant during times the sons are there for lunch or dinner with their partners. The action also uncovers what happened the night of Laura’s birthday party.
In effect there are three playlets which reveal this family’s dynamics and the personalities of the family members. The future after the birthday event is revealed in the scenes between Glyn (Richard Stacey), and Stephanie (Emily Pithon), his wife. The past before the birthday event is revealed between Adam (James Powell), and Maureen (Rachel Caffrey), his girlfriend. We discover how elder son Glyn is unhappily married, and baffled by the state of the family business which was impacted by the economic downturn and left in a corrupt shambles by his father. We follow the events into the past when Adam asked Maureen to become unofficially engaged back to the time when they first met by mistake and she was assumed to be a “tart.”
In between these revelations of each son’s character and relationships is the counterpoint when the action shifts to the birthday party. Ayckbourn’s genius is that he caves in time and manipulates it forward and backward, though we clearly understand the linearity of events. With this time manipulation we get a sense of the gradual enlightenment the characters experience. We are able to understand the father’s and mother’s relationship to each other and their sons. We see the family slowly turn on each other after a stressed Maureen guzzles down her drink and then faints at the birthday party. From this point onward, there is an attempt to iron out the situation but the events plummet on a downward spiral. The birthday party lengthens for Gerry (Russell Dixon), and Laura (Sarah Parks), as the restaurant owner brings more drinks. Then Laura gives herself a final birthday present to celebrate and amuse Gerry. He is not amused.
The shift in time during the last two scenes is particularly devastating and powerful because we and the characters finally know that this party was a pivotal event, a milestone after which each character experiences tremendous change. Indeed, the forces which were allowing the family to live deluded, artificial lives of muted despair and unhappiness are dissolved. Now there is only the ongoing journey for each. And the resolution for each of them and working through with each other, Ayckbourn intimates, will probably never be attained. Ayckbourn’s message is devastating and gives us pause as we reflect upon our own lives, our families and our relationships.
Ayckbourn has written a gem which he has directed with feeling and understanding. The actors are superb and the ensemble is convincing as a family that remains alienated from each other, though they desperately try to “keep up appearances” of love and concern. The clown element Ayckbourn has written in to break up any heavy handedness is perhaps dated. The 5 parts which include 4 waiters and the owner are played by the same actor who is perhaps the weakest link of the production. The humor is forced; but in all fairness, it takes an extremely talented actor to play 4 heavily accented waiters with versatility and differentiation. The roles were a distraction, as they were meant to be, only not as they were intended, to bring relief and humor. This was the only setback in a sterling production.
The play Time of My Life is part of the Ayckbourn Ensemble now appearing as a part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. The production is running until June 29th.
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