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Sentimental? Nonsense. William Saroyan’s work is no more sentimental than John Steinbeck’s; it’s just more overtly inclined to lyricism. Still, he’s been stuck in some quarters with a reputation almost for being schmaltzy: “Masterfully economical as to words,” said the New Republic in 1953, “Mr. Saroyan is…almost recklessly prodigal as to feeling.”

There’s a speech from The Time of Your Life, the play for which Saroyan won (and rejected) the 1940 drama Pulitzer, that easily gives the lie to that view. The “feeling” here is restrained but urgent, convinced but never hectoring, and certainly not excessive:

“In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches….Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption….In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

Saroyan saw clearly the profound griefs and the simple pleasures common to daily human existence, and realized that their very universality ennobled them.

American Century Theater’s two-part Saroyan Celebration, though it has its occasional awkward moment, captures beautifully the gentle sweetness and essentially decent character that is the author’s signature. The standout is James Brown-Orleans in Hello Out There, one of Saroyan’s least favorite and most traditionally structured plays, which opens the program with its tale of twisted small-town justice.

Brown-Orleans is a drifter jailed in a Texas backwater, accused of rape; Deena Lynn Rubinson (quietly affecting in an underwritten role) is the girl who cooks and cleans at the jailhouse, and who finds herself drawn to the prisoner because he, unlike her family and the rest of the folks in town, talks to her as though she matters.

It’s easy to see this playlet, with less capable actors in the lead roles, seeming trite and predictable; the misunderstood outsider works a change in the sad, lonely hometown girl’s arid existence, but events conspire to keep them from running off together.

Brown-Orleans is a riveting blend of menace and magnetism here, and his edgy, slightly wild-eyed performance laces the plot with tension. You really don’t know whether he means trouble for this needy innocent: Is she latching onto someone whose free-spirited take on life can transform her own? Or is she falling in love with a potential killer?

For the most part, director DeAnna Duncan keeps things tightly contained, but she has the confidence to let Brown-Orleans open the show with a brief, unscripted display of bravura acting that both showcases his considerable charisma and telegraphs the tension in the atmosphere at the jail. Steve Holliday’s spare set—two sets of bars, a spartan cot, the strong, simple lines of a circular enameled wash basin and a square pine table—anchors the time and mood admirably.

If the acting in My Heart’s in the Highlands isn’t as exciting, it’s at least not distressing. Director Laurie Mufson does let her stage pictures become a bit Norman Rockwellish at times, but she has to work with a somewhat larger cast, not to mention a protagonist who’s still in knee britches (the script says he’s 9, but the engaging Patrick McMurphy is plainly a little older than that).

And the play’s structure is much more challenging: A series of disjointed scenes unfolds in only vaguely linear fashion, snippets of experience remembered dimly, perhaps, by an older version of the central character. Indeed, that 9-year-old, the son of a frustrated poet, is widely thought to represent Saroyan, who would have been just a little younger at the place and time specified in the script: Fresno, Calif., 1914.

In the play, Johnny Alexander is a bright kid, clever enough to use his charm to wangle free food from the kindhearted immigrant grocer when the family doesn’t have cash, which is almost always. Johnny’s bright enough, too, to know that it’s probably irresponsible for his father to sit struggling with his poetry when there’s a kid and a dependent grandmother to be fed.

But Saroyan’s masterfully balanced writing never lets us dislike Johnny’s father (Michael Replogle), who is as devoted to his kid as he is to his poems. An earnestly cockeyed optimist, a romantic who knows the world will reward him for his art if only he keeps at it, he’s always writing, always waiting for someone to notice. Johnny’s mixture of absolute faith in his father’s talent and awareness of the seriousness of their situation is simply heartbreaking.

Into this untenable situation comes Mr. MacGregor (W.R. Salisbury), who may or may not be a formerly great Shakespearean actor but certainly is now a lonely old man who, in indifferent health, has escaped the town’s old folks’ home and just wants someone to share his company. Like Johnny’s father, he believes the world will come to him; unlike Johnny’s father, he has a kind of magic that sometimes makes it happen—as when, during his time as a guest in their house, he plays the title tune on his bugle for a crowd of delighted neighbors, who respond with gifts of food enough to feed the family for days.

MacGregor comes and goes, and the family faces yet more troublesome times; when things seem at their worst, MacGregor returns, but this time he brings no hope with him. His magic is gone, his talent faded, and his life is drawing to its close. Saroyan’s characters circle ’round him, and the neighbors, who came hoping to be entertained again, empty their larders once more anyway, out of gratitude for the memory of his earlier gift. For a moment, bleakness and bright hope are in balance; grief and openhearted joy are at war. Then the moment passes, and Johnny’s family is alone again, and their life goes uncertainly on as the play ends.

Saroyan’s achingly romantic view of hard times and the dignity of human struggle may seem cloying to the hardhearted, but his clear-eyed appraisal of a starving artist’s responsibilities to the family that comes perilously close to starving with him is anything but saccharine. This second half of the evening is about small triumphs and tragedies and the way we celebrate and mourn them, and it’s just lovely in its unprepossessing way.

The first two of Phoenix Theatre’s “Three Plays by Sylvia Cahill,” sadly, are about as inspiring and revelatory as the evening’s prosaic title. That said, the third, Ballycastle, is a small gem. Funny and energetic and not a second too long, it’s about a young American’s hitchhiking misadventure in the green hills of Ireland; Donna Cacciatore brings just the right understated frenzy to the main role.

Her companion, James L. Beller, fights a losing battle with his brogue but doesn’t harm the play; he’s less fortunate as a banker in the seemingly interminable Sky Changes, where his tendency to let mannerisms get too big for DCAC’s tiny space becomes distracting. Ginger Moss, his lover in Sky Changes and a besotted photographer in a predictable bit called Leave the Light On, similarly overdoes it. Mueen J. Ahmad, who romances her in the same two pieces, falls somewhere between Cacciatore’s relaxed style and the anxious self-consciousness of the other two, though it must be pointed out that his countrified twang in Leave the Light On is excruciating. Perhaps they’re all three to be excused, though; they could merely be trying to breathe life into two essentially lifeless plays.CP