By Karen Isaacs
Good intentions are not always enough. An Opening in Time the new play by Christopher Shinn which is getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage through Oct. 11 is a perfect example of this. Possibly the play will change, but based on this production, much work needs to be done.
Shinn, a talented younger playwright, has good intentions. In the playbill he talks about a fellowship with the American Psychoanalytic Association and his fascination with psychoanalytic writers: the question, as he puts, is of “human motivation – especially hidden or disavowed motivation.” He talks of learning about the human suffering hidden from society.
He talks about other lofty goals – to help the audience see the “tragic areas of the human psyche” and let the audience “connect with these characters, see them not as unique outliers but as everyday people.”
With goals like that, Shinn set himself up for a difficult task.
Unfortunately he has not been able to fulfill it in a dramatically satisfactory way.
An Opening in Time is set in his home town of Wethersfield though it is described as “a suburban town in central Connecticut.” The play opens with Anne entering a neat colonial style house with a similar, but larger home, close by.
Anne is a recently retired English teacher. We learn that she was widowed a year ago and has moved back to the town where she seemed happiest. She and her husband and son had moved away many years before when her husband bought a large farm in a more isolated area.
Complications quickly arise. So many in fact, that they could keep any self-respecting soap opera in business for a year or more.
To name a few: her door is marred when a ball thrown by a teenager hits it. The boy, George, shows up followed soon by his mother. But this is not a typical neighbor. The mother, Kim, explains that the boy is a foster son whose older brother has left her house and has drug and other problems.
As the first act continues, the scene switches frequently — to the local restaurant where Frank and Ron eat many meals at the counter; Ron is a partly retired teacher and the honcho of the high school’s annual musical production. Frank eats most meals there while reading his tablet even though he is married. Ron is divorced.
Of course, Anne shows up at the restaurant and Ron’s reaction is strange – he quickly leaves. During a return visit, Anne talks with him and it becomes clear they knew each other many years ago – while both were married – and had frequent lunches together. Anne also tells him that she is estranged from her adult son, Sam, ever since her husband’s funeral. Apparently, shaken by his sudden death, she had asked Sam to take the car to the carwash and he had responded with an outburst of anger. But there is a twist. Several years ago, Sam – a music teacher – had been arrested for an inappropriate, though possibly consensual, relationship, with a 17-year-old girl.
Wait – there is more. Anne’s kitchen windows are broken and the police arrive. Of course, the obvious suspect is George but she suspects Sam.
The first act curtain adds another complication: George shows Anne a photo of himself, but as a girl!
So many things go on in the second act that the audience’s heads may be spinning. We learn more about Ron and Anne’s relationship: they almost left their spouses for each other; Sam has another run in with the law when he responds to a text from the girl, and finally Anne and he reconnect briefly. Kim seems odder and odder. Anne’s window is broken another time. Ron is no longer doing the annual musical – he insulted the principal when she selected Rent as the show. Of course, George gets a role in the show and Kim is refusing to sign the permission slip: is it because the show is considered controversial in many school districts because of its characters that are gay, have AIDs, etc.?
You should get the picture.
Unfortunately it is not just the convoluted plot that doesn’t really work. So many scenes are set in either the local dinner or a pizza place or Denny’s that you begin to think that no one cooks at home.
For example the set by Anjte Ellermann generated some laughs from the audience as tables or diner counters kept rising and descending from the stage. The lighting by Russell H. Champa is also confusing. At the opening of the play, the cool lighting made it seem fall or wintery, yet we learn from the dialogue that it is summer. There is never any warmth in the lighting nor any differentiation of playing spaces, day/night etc.
In reality the faults of this production must be laid at the feet of director Oliver Butler and the playwright. The performers are given complex characters to work with but are never able to provide the audience with the needed clues about why they behave the way they do.
Kim may have been envisioned as a smug, self-congratulatory suburban resident, but she comes across as puzzling and somewhat menacing.
Both Anne, played by Deborah Hedwall and Ron, played by Patrick Clear, are so pedestrian that they blend into the scenery. They each have hidden angst but it is almost impossible to feel it.
Will An Opening in Time ever realize the ambitions of Shinn? I hope so, but it needs a great deal of work to accomplish his lofty goals. It will need to be streamlined – does George need to be a teen who is not only part of the foster system, but is recognizing that he is transgendered? Does Anne’s son need to have had a second criminal problem?
If this work is done, it possible that this could become a moving play about people’s regrets, second chances and ability to examine their lives.
An Opening in Time is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Oct. 11. For tickets contact hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.
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