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"A talky but touching 'Human Comedy'"

by David Hale
The Fresno Bee
, Saturday, September 19, 1981

Fresno Community Theater enters its 26th season at a crossroads.

In the past few months, the civic theater group has survived a fiscal crisis that threatened to destroy it, or at least force it from its resident playhouse, the Fresno Memorial Auditorium theater.
(l-r) Ken Greene, Ted Esquivel, and Nate Butler.
Although the organization is alive and performing in the theater, problems remain.

Meantime, to give the players a special showcase, playwright William Monson, a Fresno State University TV-radio teacher, has dredged up William Saroyan's 1942 novel, "The Human Comedy," and adapted it for the stage.

Monson's "world premier" creation, which he directed, opened Thursday and is being repeated tonight and Sunday night in the auditorium.

The stage version of "The Human Comedy" makes a typical Saroyan play: A series of short scenes allow a variety of homely characters to explain themselves and to reaffirm the value of such virtues as love, dignity, self-awareness, respect, courtesy and diligence.

The play is presented as a tribute to Saroyan, who died last spring in Fresno.

Considering the nature of the occasion and Monson's enterprise in giving us an untried vehicle, I wish I could say I loved it. I didn't.

In stage terms, "Human Comedy" is so talky and static, the drama so low-key, the sentiments so persistently banal that the evening is wearisome.

The play is potentially more diverting. There are amusing moments. And touching ones arise from the play's essential sweetness, and the universal emotions evoked by the segments dealing with death and its impact on loved ones (reinforced by the affecting ensemble renditions of sacred songs by the women.)

Saroyan's language, warmth and vitality are intact. So are his patience with weakness and a certain naivety about meanness. Monson has arranged it all so that there is a sense of growth in the central character, young Homer MaCauley, played by Nate Butler. The play's main faults are that it is too long (two hours, 40 minutes with intermission) and repetitious. At least 30 minutes could be cut.

To be charitable, Monson's players do rough justice to the story -- the majority of the cast much rougher than the rest.

Among the best are Nate Butler, who shows promise with his energy and conviction as Homer MaCauley, the apprentice clerk; Ted Esquivel as his compassionate employer; and Linda Willis as the boy's sweetly spunky and sympathetic widowed mother.

The standout is Ken Green, as the tippling old telegraph clerk. Green, the veteran of Community Theater players, gives perhaps his best (un-mannered) performance in recent years, especially in his "know thyself so that in the time of your life you may live" speech.

Bruce Parker's setting of the rickety old telegraph office is serviceable, but the constant traffic of portable tableaux for scene changes detracts from dramatic momentum. The lighting and special effects, ranging from thunder and lightning to crickets, add to the small-town flavor.

And let there be special applause for the Leon Peters Foundation which financed a badly needed "thrust" addition to the Memorial Auditorium stage. Employed for the first time with "Human Comedy," the simple platform over the orchestra pit bridges a long-maligned architectural gulf between actors and audience.


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