An Opening in...the Stage

By Brooks Appelbaum

The vast, grey-toned stage space that serves as the main set for Christopher Shinn’s “An Opening in Time,” playing at Hartford Stage through October 11th, invites speculation. What complicated, emotional clashes or surprises will fill and color this nearly blank canvas? The exterior of a large gray-green Colonial lines the back wall, and next door to this structure stands the visible interior of a realistic kitchen. As the action begins, we find that the script is less substantial than this backdrop: over the course of two hours, so little drama occurs, and what we do see proceeds at such a glacial pace, that the play feels like a series of sketched out ideas rather than a finished and compelling work.

The main plot, such as it is, revolves around Anne (Deborah Hedwall) who has recently lost her husband and has elected to return to the suburban town in Connecticut she left many years ago. She tells an old friend, Ron (Patrick Clear) that her adult son, Sam (Karl Miller) has broken off contact with her, and that she has chosen to live near him in the hopes of re-establishing a relationship.

Ron also wants to re-establish a relationship -- with Anne. He tells his diner buddy Frank (Bill Christ) that he was sweet on her many years ago, and Ron clearly hopes to rekindle that guttering flame.

So much for “might have beens,” as J.M. Barrie calls such wistful dreaming in his lovely play, Dear Brutus. Barrie’s play never pretends to be anything but a fanciful meditation on paths not taken. Shinn, on the other hand, appears to be aiming at a realistic play. However, the most interestingly realistic element comes in the form of an under-developed sub-plot. Next door to Anne lives high-energy, stressed-out Kim (Molly Camp), along with her husband and one of the two African-American foster brothers they have been caring for, teenage George (Brandon Smalls). According to Kim, the other brother left the family in favor of drugs and crime.

Once Anne has attempted to befriend the nearly silent George, once Kim has given and retracted several dinner invitations, and once Anne’s kitchen windows have been smashed, potentially intriguing mysteries come to the fore. What might Kim have against Anne, who clearly wants to help George emerge from his unhappy isolation? And as to the window smashing, could the culprit be George? And if so, why? Could her son, Sam be expressing anger at her return to town? Or, as the detective on duty (Mike Keller) suggests, could this be the work of an unknown vandal, or perhaps someone with a long-buried antipathy for Anne from her days as a middle-school teacher. (One wonders, here, who trains detectives in this well-to-do Connecticut town.)

After a dramatic first act revelation, Shinn pulls abruptly and disappointingly away from this entire set of characters and questions and focuses, instead, on the relationship between Ron and Anne. (Ron is the guy from the diner, remember, who had a crush on Anne years ago.) The unraveling of what has happened between them in the past and what they feel for one another in the present seems to be occurring in slow motion, and here Mr. Shinn’s writing and director Oliver Butler’s pacing are responsible. Butler, who directed the snappy, fierce, and funny Bad Jews last spring for Long Wharf Theatre, is unable to inspire his actors to give the actions and emotions, such as they are, the urgency this long evening so badly needs.

One can’t blame the cast, since each one performs skillfully enough what little there is to play. In particular, Hedwall gives us a natural and sympathetic Anne, and Karl Miller brings a charismatic and disturbing unease to Sam. Patrick Clear is believable as Ron, but I couldn’t find any sympathy for his character—again, Shinn and Butler give him no help in making us feel that his situation carries emotional weight. Most appealing of all is Kati Brazda, as Anetta, the diner waitress who has eyes for the much older Ron. The reasons for her attraction are beyond me, but Brazda brings welcome humor to her role without overplaying, and she is a master of the small gesture, the side-glance, and the telling shift in tone.

Distracting us from any sense of reality or gravitas is the set. Antje Ellerman created the problematic design and Russell H. Champa provided the lighting, but we can’t forget that Butler signed off on what we see. And what we see is not pretty. Each setting, other than Anne’s kitchen (the diner bar, three restaurants, and a guest room) rises out of the floor in a different place on the large, grey stage. Because lights reveal the people and sets as they ascend from below, and because the space around them is never completely darkened, we don’t experience a believable new place but focus instead on the technical apparatus.

Ultimately, these distractions represent all that is unsuccessful in both the play and the production. Set changes that should be invisible take center stage -- pun intended -- while the human conflicts and characters that should mesmerize and challenge never seem fully to hit their marks.

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