“An Opening in Time,” the opening play of the new season at Hartford Stage which is now playing through October 11, is designed to deliberately hit close to home.
Playwright Christopher Shinn has set his world premiere work in an unnamed central Connecticut town that shares multiple characteristics with his own hometown of Wethersfield, which in the interests of full disclosure, happens to be my town of residence. Set designer Antje Ellermann has created a set that includes the outlines of two 18th century style houses that most definitely evoke the historic part of town, Old Wethersfield, backed by a run of trees whose leaves look ready to change.
While the fourth wall of one of those houses is open to reveal the main character’s kitchen, director Oliver Butler and Ellerman have decided to depict the play’s other locations using trap doors on the stage floor out of which rise a diner’s counter or another character’s living room. Unfortunately, particularly during the first act, some of Shinn’s scene are so short that the up and down activity of these scenic elements is dizzying. In addition, lead actress Deborah Hedwell must walk amidst this activity that one becomes worried that she’ll pull a Christina Applegate and accidentally fall into one of these openings. (Note: Applegate famously fell through a trap during her Broadway run of “Sweet Charity.”)
When you worry more about the set and its potential to harm actors rather than the lives of the characters in the play, that’s probably not a good sign. “An Opening in Time” (no, I don’t think Shinn was thinking about the openings on the stage’s floor) is a slow, diffuse work that comes across as more disjointed than it perhaps need to be. Shinn is clearly attempting to write in a realistic mode, with characters who speak and come across as true to life, and are ably directed by Butler and depicted by the cast as being so.
But this realistic depiction has a tendency to slow down the play, for example, in early scenes as Shinn establishes the routine in a local diner, Greek-owned in a very Wethersfield touch, as the banter between three characters seems geared to create more local color at the expense of propelling the plot forward. In addition, several of Shinn’s characters are, legitimately enough, reticent or hesitant, occasionally exasperatingly so, which also contributes to the uneven feeling throughout the evening, with some sections proving to be gripping and other scenes just seeming lifeless or slow.
To me, I found a scene between Hedwell’s Anne and actor Karl Miller’s Sam, her son, set in a diner booth, to be the most compelling in the entire play. The scene and the two actors hold your attention in ways that the rest of the play rarely comes close to doing. Similarly, scenes between Hedwell and actor Brandon Smalls, playing a neighbor’s teenaged foster son named George, have almost the same type of appeal and attraction, although George’s unwillingness to respond fully to Anne’s questions, as makes sense between two characters so different in age, race and experience, again frustrates the forward motion of the play.
At its heart, “An Opening in Time” focuses on Anne, a former teacher in the local school system who moved with her husband several decades ago to a farm out in the country, and who decided to move back to town following the death of her husband. Her reasons are unclear at first, perhaps even to herself, though the warm memories of her comfort in the community are what she initially asserts. As she meets her neighbor Kim and the last remaining foster child, George, whose older brother has aged out of the system and according to Kim has gotten involved in drugs and other activities in Hartford. Shinn then introduces us the crowd at the diner, Ron, a retired teacher at the school who now just handles the annual musical, his friend and countermate Frank, a macho-type who makes fun of Ron’s reluctance to adapt to modern conveniences such as an iPad, and Anetta, the Polish-accented waitress who has a little crush on Ron.
When Anne one day wanders into the diner, she and Ron notice each other, but characteristically say nothing, even though everything in the scene hints at some kind of familiarity. On a subsequent visit, Anne will break the ice and a little more about the not just professional relationship between the two while they were teachers at the high school will become clear. They attempt to renew their previous friendship in fits and starts, because of unresolved issues from 30 years which are only much later in the play to be revealed as having resulted from some significant misunderstandings and an inability or perhaps reluctance to honestly communicate. Ultimately, there’s a lot of regret, second-guessing, and what-if thinking that’s more edgy than rueful, keeping the play from being mired in bathos.
But the play and Anne’s focus are also directed in several other directions that contribute to a somewhat disconnect in the work’s guiding theme. Anne, for example, takes a special interest in young George while simultaneously disturbed by Kim’s mysterious and overly controlling attitude toward her foster son. Someone also breaks two of Anne’s windows on two separate occasions, with suspicion directed toward George or toward her son, the latter of whom Anne has not heard from in over a year despite his unfortunate new-found public notoriety. Shinn’s plot also jumps ahead weeks or months without clear explanation, making it occasionally hard to figure out some of the changes that have occurred or decisions that have been made in the interim.
Hedwell is immediately believable as the former teacher who relinquished her career to follow her husband out of town, evidencing a warmth and concern typical of a teacher in a small town school system. She carries Anne’s intelligence with pride and hints at a sense of underlying, undefined regret that becomes more apparent as the evening progresses. She also effectively captures the growing hesitation of movement common in older people, depicted to a further degree in Patrick Clear’s Ron.
Clear manages to convey Ron’s essential decency in his interest and connection to his students, while also demonstrating the character’s desire to maintain a sense of familiarity and routine in his life, whether it be an absurdly early bedtime, a regular seat at the diner, or a preference for scheduling the romantic musicals of the 40’s and 50’s over the students’ interest in more contemporary fare.
Smalls is quite good as the taciturn, private George who unwillingness to open up reflects both his history in the foster care system as well as his burgeoning awareness of deeply personal issues that have long term impact on his future. This aspect of George is not explored that deeply by Shinn, who nonetheless demonstrates a sympathy for the adolescent’s situation, nor is it necessarily presaged by the character’s early development.
Kati Brazda believably and humorously depicts Anetta’s territoriality, particularly in scenes with Hedwell’s Anne, while Bill Christ, as countermate Frank, offers amiable friendship, although Shinn leaves the audience to ponder Frank’s seemingly out of nowhere decision to take his meals at other diners or delis in town. Molly Camp is suitably mysterious and perhaps a little bit racist as foster home mom, whose motives in parenting George the way she does deserve to be questioned. Miller does excellent work at Anne’s wayward son, in a touching, serious portrayal of a young man filled with shame and defeat.
Ilona Somogyi’s collection of on-target costumes would not be out of place in middle class Wethersfield, while Russell H. Champa’s lighting not only helps direct attention to specific location on the thrust stage, but highlights some of the natural surroundings that designate the setting as definitely Connecticut.
The climax of the play, a dynamic confrontation between Anne and Ron, does show Shinn’s writing and plotting at its best, as he demonstrates an ability to get under the characters’ skins and peel away the levels of misunderstanding and denial that have impacted the pair’s memories and beliefs over the 30-year gap in their association. While it is in and of itself an exciting dramatic scene of revelations, it isn’t the fulfilling moment that Shinn may have intended because of the disjointed nature of much of what has come before. But it does demonstrate Shinn’s sense of drama, which has been better seen in some of his other works, especially “Four” and “Dying City,” both of which have been seen in outstanding productions here in Hartford.
“An Opening in Time” runs through October 11. For information and tickets, call the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit the theater’s website at www.hartfordstage.org.