Tom Butler and Teri Lamm in Time and the Conways(Photo: Wendy Stulberg)
Tom Butler and Teri Lamm in Time and the Conways
(Photo: Wendy Stulberg)
In Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw found a metaphor for an ailing England, but he wasn't the only one to make use of it. J. B. Priestley, whose devotion to play-as-gimmick has since been taken up by Alan Ayckbourn, found another set of breaking hearts on which to focus, and the resulting drama was Time and the Conways. A tidily crafted piece that may be kitschy and slightly dated, it's still extremely effective and neatly profound, certainly as presented in The Epic Theatre Center's beautifully acted revival.

Priestley wrote the play in 1937, seemingly to comment on England's slide from post-World War I optimism to pre-World War II pessimism. To contain his mixed feelings about a society capable of both great hope and great disillusionment, he created the seven-member Conway family. It is 1919, and Conway père has died; his widow, flush with stock ownership and real estate holdings, is raising six very different children in a superficially happy home.

Two acts demonstrate the Conways' confidence in a bright future. We meet them at a party where a lively, and symbolic, game of charades is in progress. Twenty-first birthday girl Kay (Abigail Lopez) has arranged and is directing the activities. Abetting her with varying degrees of enthusiasm are her vain and imperious sister Hazel (Melissa Friedman); her vivacious teenage sister Carol (Nilaja Sun); her politically left-leaning sister Marge (Lisa Rothe); her equable brother Alan (James Wallert); the agreeable family friend Joan Helford (Teri Lamm); the flirtatious lawyer and family friend Gerald Thornton (Craig Rovere); an unpolished newcomer from the north, Ernest Beevers (Todd Cerveris); and of course Mrs. Conway herself (Jenny Stelin).

Amidst these frenzied comings and goings, brother Robin (Tom Butler), freshly demobilized from military service and the apple of his mother's eye, arrives home and makes a successful play for Joan, scotching Alan's designs on her. At about the same time, Madge's plan to ensnare Gerald goes astray, thanks to a calculatedly hurtful remark from Mrs. Conway, while Beevers sets about breaking the wall of ice between him and Hazel. Meanwhile, Kay repeatedly wrinkles her brow over her desire to start a writing career, and Carol remains girlish and bubbly.

Priestley, of course, has additional plans for the Conways; to demonstrate the dashing of their fondest designs, he writes another act, set 19 years later, in which we see that what they've wanted for themselves hasn't quite materialized. Now it's Kay's 40th birthday, and she has returned for a few hours to Newlingham, where the others continue to hunker down. Kay is having an unsatisfying career as a journalist covering the famous and near-famous, and her brothers and sisters are doing little better in their chosen fields. Only Ernest Beevers has prospered--in everything but a sterile marriage to Hazel. The clan's gathering is in no way celebratory this time; instead, the brooding brood has been called together to learn from the now stodgy Gerald some harsh facts about Mrs. Conway's finances.

So, there you have Priestley's three acts; it's his arrangement of them that constitutes his gimmick, a gimmick that won't be spelled out here. Priestley eschews chronological order because he couldn't be less interested in linearity; one of his contentions here is that time needn't be considered a straightforward construct. He cleverly floats his hunches about the alternative possibilities of time by having his characters always speaking about their expectations, about what they see (and what they want to see) coming their way. With the exception of Alan, who admits to having no ambition, every one of them palavers with alternating excitement and resignation about prospects and realities. It's Kay, sitting by a window at the end of each act, who sees most clearly into the future and who fears what she sees. Alan expresses his belief in living in the present by quoting William Blake's 1863 "Auguries of Innocence": "Man was made for joy and woe / And when this we rightly know / Thro' the world we safely go." (Examined closely, Time and the Conways could be considered an elaboration on Blake's spiritual views: It's as if Priestley has taken Blake and modernized him with sprinklings of Albert Einstein: It's all relative, he says, but rather more eloquently.)

To give Priestley his due, director Ron Russell has rounded up a gifted cast. Although the early 1919 sequences are possible more halting than called for, Russell has been diligent about his chores; he has encouraged the players to flaunt their gifts, and no one lets him down. Jenny Sterlin, so acerbic in Further Than the Furthest Thing earlier this season, does well as the stern Mrs. Conway, a woman fighting to raise all of her children well despite the fact that she favors some over others. Abigail Lopez, as Kay, is convincing at bringing a disappointed, reflective woman to troubled life. Teri Lamm digs deeply into the contrast between Joan the giddy, infatuated young woman and Joan the jilted housewife and mother. Right on target are Melissa Friedman as an insouciant and, later, excessively souciant Hazel; Lisa Rothe, who goes from staunch-jawed incipient Socialist to chilly school mistress as Madge; and Nilaja Sun, whose Carol is an appealingly precocious child. (Sun is African-American, a bold casting decision on Russell's part and a possibly damaging one: How much time do audience members spend thinking about this odd discrepancy when they should be concentrating on the action? Maybe one solution to the problem, if it is a problem, would have been to cast the play even more non-traditionally.)

The men in the cast are every inch as striking as the women, though this may be the moment to note that the English accents wax and wane throughout the night. Still, James Wallert makes certain that Alan, who could be a bit of a pill, is quietly sagacious and supportive. Tom Butler's Robin is ebullient when returning from war, which makes his descent into alcoholism that much more pathetic. Craig Rovere conveys the notion that Gerald Thornton's authority isn't an entirely positive attribute. But of them all, Todd Cerveris, who does hold onto his miles-from-London accent with a firm grip, may be the major find: A fellow with a roundly innocent face and stocky body, his Beevers is shy almost to the point of stuttering when he first meets the family and then hard as granite when eventually letting them know what he thinks of their airs. These are roles that actors can sink their teeth into, and this lot does some swell teeth-sinking.

Apparently, the Epic company gets by on the kind of budget that Mrs. Conway faces: The look of the production is only so-so. Thaddeus Strassberger has provided funishings that suggest the right sort of gentility but Mattie Ullrich's costumes, particularly in the 1919 segments, lack the proper panache and richness. (Melissa Friedman does get to wear a tidy suit with fur accessory and pushed-up hat, the very outfit a woman would select to compensate for a husband's inattention.)

By one of those coincidences that pop up every theater season,Time and the Conways deals with a theme that is simultaneously being taken on elsewhere; Priestley's work pokes at time in the same way that Craig Lucas and David Schulner's This Thing of Darkness does. In both plays, characters believe they've had a frightening glimpse of what's to be. and what they've intuited seems unimpeachably prescient. But whereas the Lucas-Schulner treatment sinks under its pretentious weight, Time and the Conways soars on wings of heartbreaking inspiration. Find time for it.