Tormented soldiers, wasted Vietnam vets, young men dying of AIDS who see angels—the political and social ferment of the last five decades has produced formidable plays that wrestle with the issues of their day. Clare Coss’s Our Place in Time gives us a mini-sampler of these issues. Call it the Cliffs Notes of social dramedy.
Not that the piece lacks charm. Under the energetic, if sentimental, direction of Bryna Wortman, we’re treated to a speed-through of music, language, and social oddities from 1955 to 1999. Each of the 11 vignettes, enacted by a selection of the six performers, is introduced by a smile-inducing pop music selection, from “Young at Heart” to “Jailhouse Rock” to “Let It Be.” All the action transpires against Narelle Sissons’s pretty, latticed window wall, with Jane Cox’s lighting casting a warm glow over remembered times. And there are some performances worth watching, most notably by Jacqueline Knapp, Gena Bardwell, and Daniel McDonald.
The best pieces are small character studies that are of their time without trying to be about it. In the first, set in 1955, a lapsed lefty named Lynn (Knapp) is persuaded to go on a date by Dan (Norman Maxwell), who still supports the Revolution. Despite Lynn’s tentativeness about romance, Dan’s sweet-humored patience wins out over their political wrangles. And the period detail is subtle and funny. They meet for a drink at the Russian Tea Room, which Lynn pronounces “very Czarist.”
In “A Place at the Table (1962),” Knapp plays a liberal suburban matron, Betsey, whose father-in-law objects to their black maid Rebecca (Bardwell) joining them at the Thanksgiving table. The guilty, wishy-washy Betsey is nicely shown up by the proud Rebecca, who slips out to attend a friend’s dinner where opera singers perform. Bardwell is fine as the incensed “just like family” member who totally understands she’s not really family.
In “Best Wishes to the Bride (1980),” Knapp and Elizabeth Hess play a mother and daughter on the eve of the daughter’s wedding. Knapp is a feminist trying to rein herself in while recoiling at her daughter’s submissiveness to her man. There’s also some fun byplay as mother tries to persuade bride to buy a diaphragm.
What works least is a series of scenes about a group of friends who live through the Cuban missile crisis, attend the 1963 March on Washington, and protest the Vietnam War. In each of these, you feel you’re getting a barely veiled history lesson. You hear the actual voices of JFK and Martin Luther King, while the characters seem mere sketches, superficial and clichéd.
Two of the more intimate pieces are painfully derivative. In “The Friend of My Ghost (1979),” Bardwell plays Joan, the ex-wife of alcoholic Vietnam vet Ron (Keith Randolph Smith). In a clunky and obvious exchange, Ron finally lets loose the guilt about the less-than-honorable acts he committed during the war. In “Not the In Between (1988),” a young man dying of AIDS is desperate to see his Midwestern mother, but she’s afraid to leave her disapproving husband to visit her son in New York. Despite the hackneyed script, Daniel McDonald brings a lightness and ease to the role of the son.
The truth is, there’s little in Our Place in Time that hasn’t been done often before—and better. Still, it offers the pleasures of nostalgia, some endearing characters, and few laughs along the way.