BWW Review: AN OPENING IN TIME at Hartford Stage Company
At the top of Christopher Shinn's new play at Hartford Stage, AN OPENING IN TIME, the lights never dim to blackout. Instead, they brighten to lead us into a familiar suburban world occupied by a collection of characters whose lives intertwine as they yearn, in varied ways, to love and be loved.
The lack of a blackout at the top of the show underlines how much the world of the play is connected to now and to Hartford, where this world premiere is staged. Shinn grew up nearby, and town landmarks and history from suburban Wethersfield are sprinkled throughout the text. But you don't need to get all those local references to recognize the characters' dilemmas, which are both specific and universal.
Central is Anne, a recently widowed woman in her sixties, retired from teaching. She's chosen to relocate to the town she lived in 30 years ago, in part to seek out a man she believes still lives there. Her estranged adult son Sam also lives nearby, and she harbors hope that they might repair their wounded relationship. The house she buys is next door to a family that has recently taken in a foster child, George, a high school boy from the inner city. The man she pursues, Ron, is also in his sixties, and lives alone, taking most of his meals at a local diner presided over by a passionate Polish waitress.
In choosing to foreground mature folks of retirement age wrestling with whether they might have a shot at love again, Shinn opens a window into lives that we rarely see on stage, where most leads are young or middle-aged, even though the regional theater audience is typically much older. It's fitting that he's chosen an epigraph for the play from Shakespeare's late play THE WINTER'S TALE: "...Come and lead me/Unto these sorrows." Not only are these characters in the late chapters of their lives, well aware that love is always braided together with pain, but the play spans roughly six months from shortly before Thanksgiving to May. It is, quite literally, a winter's tale.
Shinn is just 40. He's been explicit that this play arose in him while he was under treatment for a virulent cancer and staring his own mortality square in the face. (See BWW: Interview.) Part of the appeal of the play to Hartford Stage artistic directorship was the presence of a great role for an older woman-a rare thing.
Deborah Hedwall brings a stolid sympathy to the role of Anne. She's kind to the complicated neighbor boy George, played with simmering distrust by newcomer Brandon Smalls. She's relentless but not entirely straightforward in pursuing Ron. As played by Patrick Clear, Ron is understated and cautious, and with good reason; but he is able to stick up for himself and insist that Anne leave the cover of lies she's allowed herself to tell. Whether he has the courage to start relationship anew, despite the complexities of their personal history and all the attendant recriminations it entails, is unclear, and this gives the play the texture of real life.
Five additional ensemble members each add a distinctive and credible character to the world of the play. Two are particularly notable: Kati Brazda as the waitress Anetta is given little to say in words but her behavior is eloquent and fierce and really funny. And Karl Miller, in his one scene as Sam, son of Anne, projects an edgy, defensive misery that is agonizing to witness. It's very accomplished acting, in a supporting role.
It is characteristic of Shinn as a playwright that he doesn't neaten up the messiness of reality in making his selections of what to include and what to omit. He also trusts the audience to do the work of connecting some of the dots, the whys and wherefores, and he is willing to leave key plot points unresolved. Compared to many of his other plays, which often take up themes of trauma and violence, this play has a sweetness to it, though it is far from sentimental.
Smart set design by Antje Ellerman helps make this multi-scene story move swiftly across two acts. The tie between the 'here and now' setting of the play and the audience in Hartford is literalized in an electric wire that connects Anne's house to the catwalk over the center seats. Both the diner set (with counter and booth) and Sam's scene in a Denny's restaurant emerge from the floor through trap doors with actors already seated in place; their immobility serves to emphasize how stuck their characters are psychologically. The final scene of the play takes place in the diner, again, quite recognizable, but this time rotated 180 degrees. Just as placement in space has shifted, something internal may have, too.
Original music and sound design by Jane Shaw help establish mood and smooth the many transitions in the show, which director Oliver Butler has kept as straightforward as possible. I might wish that he had allowed his actors to take a little more time with some of the dialogue: there are times the pace seemed a little forced for a play in which so much rich territory is turned up for our consideration.
AN OPENING IN TIME runs through October 11 in Hartford.
photo by T. Charles Erickson