Time as an Unacknowledged Character in “Time and the Conways”

Theater and the City is a column of student-written reviews in the ENGL 400 class taught by Deirdre O’Leary Cunningham.

This week’s entry is by Carly Corbett-Frank.

How much does time weigh? In J. B. Priestley’s “Time and the Conways”, the answer seems to be an unbearable amount. Exasperated with herself and her family, Kay Conway bitterly remarks that “Time is beating us.” As most of can attest, it feels as though we are in race with time. There is such pressure to fill our lives with only happiness, it can make other times in life feel irrelevant. Alan, Kay’s brother, views time as being the “cross sections of our real selves,” making all of our moments, big or small, a part of who we are. Alan quotes William Blake, reciting, “Joy and woe are woven fine/ A clothing for the soul divine.” Kay interprets time as her enemy, with “every tick of the clock–making everything worse,” while Alan sees time as an extension of himself, and of all, “all our time, will be us–the real you and me.” Time is sort of a funny thing. The bad times seem more memorable than the good, but also seem more wasteful. Yet it is often the worst of times that affect us the greatest as people, making the most ugly of moments beautiful.

The production of Time and the Conways at the the American Airlines Theatre, directed by Rebecca Taichman, presents the story of the Conways, an upper-class British family desperately trying to keep their way of life at a time where the fate of Britain and the status of the wealthy were still uncertain. In Act 1, taking place in 1919, we see celebration; a party for Kay’s 21st birthday and a celebration the end of World War 1. Laughter comes from an unseen room of party-people and the audience watches the Conway family preparing for a game of charades. A family of 6 children, the Conway siblings could not be more different; Kay (Charlotte Parry) is the literary of the group, Hazel (Anna Camp)is the beauty and the charmer, Alan (Gabriel Ebert) is the “butt-of-the-joke” caregiver, Robin (Matthew James Thomas) is the strong and alluring soldier back from war, Carol (Anna Baryshnikov) is the youngest and most favored, and Madge (Brooke Bloom) is the outspoken socialist. At the head of it all is Mrs. Conway (Elizabeth McGovern), a widow whose love for her family appears in honest humor. Time is cheery in Act 1, hidden in the golden embellishments of the stage and in accents filled with sounds of privilege. I was misled by time in Act 1, thinking it to be a statically blithe character.

A breathtaking set change involves the parlor room set from Act 1 moving backwards with an eerily similar set dropping from the ceiling. The whole transition felt very ghostly, which fitting as we learn that Act 2 takes place 18 years in the future. The cool lighting of the translucent walls juxtaposes the warm gold wallpaper that had been there once before. Yet in the background is Carol, sitting in the Act 1 set perfectly still, looking almost like a doll or a painting. The effect is eerie. Costumes have changed from the elegant dresses of the roaring 20s to the sophisticated and sharp suits of the 40s (costume designer Paloma Young).

The Conway children enter the stage at different times. What we witness is the destruction of relationships over time, as well as the destruction of the family estate to due Mrs. Conway’s inept management of funds. Each character is harsher with no golden glow of happiness on their faces. Kay faces her life alone in a job that does not interest her, Robin is a drunk and an absent father, Hazel becomes an insecure and timid wife. Madge becomes a strict and joyless headmistress, and Mrs.Conway is a pathetic and spiteful shadow of herself. The only ones unchanged are Carol, and Alan. His inability to be angry, or what his family may refer to as his inability to think deeply about anything, is arguably a reiteration of his understanding of Blake’s poem. Alan does not feel the constraints of time like other characters. He understands that the heartwarming memories of his family in 1919 are equally as important to his makeup and his life as the grim times.

Act 3 brings us back to 1919 and the first set is brought forward. Although we are back to the original set, everything seems different. Kay, who was lying on the couch, is waking up from a nap. While this is directed to appear that Act 2 is a dream, there is a knowing truth that this dream will be the fate of the Conways. Every moment of 1919 is an explanation of what is to come. As I sat in the audience watching, through Kay’s eyes, the decisions that would eventually destroy her family, I wanted to reject it. I wanted to Kay to yell at them and tell them to change their choices. She did not, and it made me wonder if the whole point of Priestley’s play was to question our own moments of time. Are we supposed to look at every moment of our lives as part of the outcome of our future or should we simply be present in the now?

“Time and the Conways” brings our fears and hopes of what time is to light in a beautiful and fluid way. It truly makes us wonder if it is “safely through the world we go.”