A bright future seems secure at the beginning of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, as a well-to-do British family celebrates a daughter’s birthday and the end of World War I. Nineteen years later, the Conways have changed in ways no one could have predicted on that happy night in 1919, with time as the unseen character in an unforgettable play.
Broadway audiences will get to know this fascinating family, led by Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern, when Time and the Conways begins performances on September 14 at the American Airlines Theatre. Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival is being directed by newly minted Tony Award winner Rebecca Taichman, who shared her excitement about the production with Broadway Direct.
“This play is a lost masterpiece,” Taichman declares of Time and the Conways, written in 1937 by the author of An Inspector Calls. “I realize that’s a strong word, but I mean it completely. On the most basic level, it’s the story of a family many of us can relate to, but the issues Priestley puts forward are the issues of our moment, of a culture separated by class in painful ways. And then there’s a theatrical leap in time, so we see the seeds of their future and how it happened.”
Among the six Conway siblings are two World War I veterans, a practical schoolteacher, an aspiring novelist, a carefree beauty, and a warmhearted teen. As the family gathers to celebrate would-be author Kay’s 21st birthday, rivalries and personality differences come to light, egged on by the presence of an edgy young businessman newly arrived in town. “Priestley shows us the complicated dynamics at play on a night when everyone is bursting with hope and possibility,” explains Taichman. “On a symbolic level, the family acts as a metaphor for the bourgeois society that’s about to fall.”
And then there’s Mrs. Conway, a matriarch with “iron dimples,” as the director laughingly puts it. “She’s a woman who probably should never have been a mother, and yet she had a lot of kids. She dreamed of becoming a singer, but the options for women at that time were limited, so she made a series of choices that were deeply wrong for her.”
The casting of Elizabeth McGovern immediately humanizes the formidable lead character. “What Elizabeth has in spades is that audiences care for her,” Taichman says of the American-born, British-based star, who began her career on the New York stage more than three decades ago. “Elizabeth is a deeply feeling person, and it’s a great asset to present Mrs. Conway through a place of empathy rather than narcissism. She is filled with contradictions, and I think it will be interesting to see the actress who played the ultimate mother on Downton Abbey play the opposite kind of mother.”
Taichman previously directed a production of Time and the Conways at San Diego’s Old Globe theatre in 2014, two years before winning acclaim and ultimately the 2017 Best Director Tony Award for Paula Vogel’s Indecent. She sees echoes in the two plays’ emphasis on how events are shaped by the past and is thrilled to tackle Time and the Conways anew with a cast of Broadway veterans, including Tony Award winner Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), Tony nominee Steven Boyer (Hand to God), and film and TV favorite Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect).
“Personally speaking, I’m very moved by the idea that our ancestors remain with us,” Taichman says, “and that the spirits of people who have walked the streets still mingle among us. This play invites us to imagine and to feel that, and the Broadway production will do the same. I don’t want to give away too much, but the play is encased in a magical invitation to imagine the way we conceive of time differently. It’s a wildly theatrical experience that is also deeply rooted in this family’s story.”
For contemporary audiences, Time and the Conways foreshadows the ill effects of a society divided by class, “where the working class feels invisible and undervalued and angry,” as Taichman puts it. “People will be surprised that the play was written in England in 1937, because it really feels of our moment. Priestley is attacking a culture driven by greed, and yet he goes about it with tremendous compassion for all of his characters.”
Also remarkable is the fact that the playwright anticipated the coming of another catastrophic war, bookending the play with the joyful end of World War I and the real-time shadow of World War II. “That’s what’s extraordinary, and really kind of eerie,” says Taichman. “Priestley is warning about the effects of looking inward, and suggesting a more fluid, open vision of time that’s less selfish.”
After her smashing Broadway debut with Indecent — and her genuine shock at becoming only the seventh woman to win a Best Director Tony Award — Taichman is primed to introduce Time and the Conways to a new generation of theatregoers. The challenge, she insists, is not much different from directing a Shakespeare comedy, a chamber opera, or a new play by her frequent collaborator Sarah Ruhl. “The goal is always the same for me: to release the story in the most moving, evocative, powerful, and honest way possible,” she says. “My hope is that people who see this play will experience all of those things.”