Comedy reveals secrets and foibles of the well-to-do

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By Cicely Eastman for ATP

CHESTERFIELD, N.H. — Do we ever really know when we are truly happy?

That is the question beneath English playwright Alan Ayckbourn's fast-paced comedy of the well-to-do Stratton family in "The Time of My Life," playing at the Actors Theatre Playhouse for nine performances Sept. 12-28, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.

Often compared to Noel Coward and Harold Pinter, Ayckbourn has written and produced more than 80 plays over his 60-odd year career and is acknowledged as a master satirist of middle-class manners. He draws scathing portraits of people leading dull, mechanical lives, who every day somehow straddle the line between comedy and farce. "Somehow, he makes us recognizable to ourselves," says Director Sam Pilo.

The cast features Maureen Hart as Laura and Bruce Holloway as Gerry as the heads of the family, Harral Hamilton as their older son Glenn and Sadie Fischesser as his wife Stephanie, Tyler Strickland as the younger son Adam with Heather Martell as his girlfriend, Maureen, and Sherman Morrison is all waiters past, present, and future. Pilo is producing and directing. Hart, Holloway and Fischesser may be recognized from ATP's production of the same playwright's "Table Manners," part of his Norman Trilogy, a few seasons ago.

At three separate restaurant tables, scenes continuously shift back and forth from present to past to future, cleverly revealing all the family secrets and foibles. As seen through this filter of "Time," this seemingly normal family's back-stabbing attacks on each other, their overbearing strengths and debilitating weaknesses, their infidelities, and disappointing children are revealed through awkward fits, situational misconceptions, and flailing arguments that keep the audience riveted as they piece together a recognizable tale of a family's pride and prejudices.

Laura, the family matriarch, recalls first love while they pick their marriage apart and husband Gerry gains new insight into their lives; Glenn reveals his wandering ways while his wife Stephanie struggles to gain her self-respect; and the relationship between Adam and Maureen goes through the test of surviving all their familial influences.

Opening scene: Set in the family's favorite ethnic restaurant in present time, a birthday celebration for 54-year-old matriarch Laura is already in progress as the stage fills with lively chatter between Laura and her husband Gerry, son Glenn and his wife Stephanie, to be joined by the late-arriving son Adam and his new hairdresser girlfriend Maureen, while waiter Sherman Morrison offers less than stellar service.

"That is what is so good about this playwright. He makes fun of human's foibles without being slapstick. What appeals to me is Ayckbourn's take on human relationships." Holloway, playing patriarch Gerry, notes that the children are victims of the family while the parents are victims of their stations in life. But then again, being the father, isn't that what he would say!

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"I've worked with (director) Sam Pilo for 20 years," Holloway said. "He's good at giving motivation and helping actors explore different angles of character. I'm serious about studying my part. It's not just about learning lines, but learning about the character."

Holloway draws from his experience dealing with high-income earners who live along the southwest coast of Connecticut, known as the Gold Coast of Connecticut, to portray Gerry who he describes as not a stereotype of such high-faluting populations but as someone who seems like he has a lot of confidence when he shouldn't. "He's a good person trying to do his best. He is happy with what he has done in his life. For Gerry, marriage at this stage of life is more of a business arrangement, but there is still affection for one another. They are genuinely in love in spite of everything. They argue because they think that is their role. They harbor mutual respect."

Hart describes matriarch Laura as interesting and complicated. "The playwright's talent at striking the nerve of a character's insecurities prompts the audience to chuckle at familiar situations. It is the kind of grin in your seat humor."

Initially, it was hard for her to find what was likable about her character. "At first glance, Laura is not very likable, but my job as an actor is to find what is redeemable in her. She is so honest, too honest. I'm finding I like her, she is kind of fun to play. She tends to offend, but she is sensible and strong, and sometimes tactless, which provides the audience with great humor."

Laura's preference for younger son Adam is apparent. "I think she likes Adam because he is creative and not boring. She likes his malleability and wants to fix him. That serves a need for her. While mothers in the audience are hopefully not as dismissive to her older son as Laura is, my role is to make people identify with her."

Hamilton takes on the role of the `least likable' character, Glenn. "His success is largely due to his father's success. He has delusions he is a capable person. The dad was grooming him, but at the same time he wanted him to be a better man, and doesn't want him to disappoint. He tries as hard as he can, but always comes up short. One of the hardest parts and challenges for me is he is a lot of things I don't like. He doesn't have many redeemable qualities. He is a misogynist (jerk.) He is rude to his wife Steph and cheats on her. As director, Sam Pilo had to really push hard to get me to open up to Glenn. All the Strattons struggle with their pursuit of happiness, but it takes a tragedy to make them, and in turn, the audience, appreciate that we don't always recognize the moments we are truly happy until it is perhaps too late."

Fischesser, who plays the long-suffering wife of Glenn, Stephanie, is familiar the playwright's work, so was excited to be part of the cast. "What I love about him is he's wonderful at writing dialogue while leaving the actors room to explore the character. He is very good at bringing about what's funny without making it rip-roaring funny. It feels like real life." She feels that all families can relate to the power differential between parents and their children. "Maybe in not such an extreme fashion as in this particular play. Like with any character, an actor has to find what can resonate, to try to find places that are relatable for an audience. In some way the audience can sympathize, having been in a place that one feels disempowered. Stephanie goes through a lot in this play. It is up to me to help the audience through her journey. I'm looking forward to seeing how they react."

Strickland as Adam said his is a very demanding part. Adam is hiding behind what he thinks the family thinks of him, bringing in the specter of his mother in all his conversations. "This is pretty new for me, he's pretty unique. I think he feels keenly but has a hard time standing up for himself. His issue is that he can't bring himself to speak in an unedited way, more concerned about being correct than doing the right thing at the expense of making himself happy. Adam is attracted to Maureen because she is so unlike anyone he has ever known, more off the cuff, more plain spoken, the antithesis of all the other people in his life. It is fun to play someone who is a little slow on the uptake. He is a day late and a dollar short of other people. But I admire that he is kind-hearted, even though he doesn't have enough backbone. Adam is genuinely kind and loves Maureen but he can't get over his mother's disapproval to let himself be happy."

Producer and Director Sam Pilo says, "Ayckbourn is a particular favorite of mine. He is a master architect of complicated story telling that sweeps you along with each character and situation by allowing us to laugh and at the same time, identify with the silliness of being alive. For an actor, it's an endless joy to work with his dialogue. He gives you so much freedom to explore inside his carefully crafted structure. For a director, it's like hooking a series of train cars together .and hoping they leave the station on the same tracks! I think the audiences are going be delighted with our efforts."

Tickets are $15 general admission. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling 877-666-1855.


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