Review: 'An Opening in Time' at Hartford Stage

Nancy Sasso Janis

Hartford Stage is presenting the world premiere of ‘An Opening in Time’ by Pulitzer Prize finalist and CT native Christopher Shinn. The production, under the direction of Oliver Butler of The Debate Society, opened on Sept. 16.  Now in their 51st year, Hartford Stage is one of the nation’s leading resident theatres and is known for producing innovative revivals of classics, as well as provocative new plays and musicals. Darko Tresnjak is the current artistic director and won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ that premiered at this very theatre. I so regret not heading to Hartford to catch this show before it moved on to Broadway.

I did travel to Hartford for the press opening of this new play by a CT native and was very impressed by the look and feel of the venue that is currently under renovation. Since it was my first time at the theatre, I couldn’t really speak to the changes made, but there were no signs of construction that I noticed. The arrangement of the house reminded me of an upscale college lecture hall and there did not appear to be a bad seat in it.

The setting of this two-act play was inspired by the playwright’s hometown of Wethersfield and there are definitely CT references that state residents will notice. In ‘An Opening in Time,’ Anne (Deborah Hedwall) is a retired teacher that has returned to the suburban town in central CT which she left several years before. Many things have changed in the town. There has been a proliferation of Dunkin Donuts franchises and the local high school plans to do a production of ‘Rent.’ Key to the time opening in the title is a long-lost friendship that suddenly appears in a new guise; the action explores how Anne tries to find connections in her shifting world.

Deborah Hedwall and Patrick Clear. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Deborah Hedwall and Patrick Clear. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Hartford Stage Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson serves as dramaturg for the play that she calls perhaps her favorite to date by this playwright. She writes, “His psychological acuity is always impressive, and never more so than in this play as he tracks the risks his characters are and are not capable of taking, in the hope of having a second chance--at love, at reconciliation, perhaps as self-knowledge.” 

I am not sure that I caught all of those nuances but I definitely found the plot interesting. I found the first act to be engrossing and very funny but the second felt a little forced at times. As a teacher with an interest in all things theatre, I enjoyed the references to the lives of teachers and probably laughed at lines that no one else found funny. Some of the current topics covered include marriage equality, transgender youth and the controversial nature of the aforementioned high school version of ‘Rent.’

Hartford Stage has cast a fine group of actors to play the residents of this CT town. Ms. Hedwall, in her Hartford Stage debut, brings her experience as a teacher to the role of this woman in her sixties and makes us care about her character. Patrick Clear also makes his Hartford Stage debut in the role of Anne’s old friend Ron and he made it interesting to watch his character navigate the rekindling of his relationship with her. Katie Brazda plays the cranky diner waitress who has little patience for anyone. Her Polish accent and timing were equally on point. 

Molly Camp, in her Hartford Stage debut, plays Anne’s neighbor Kim, who is the foster mother to George, a teen with a violent past played by Brandon Smalls. Bill Christ plays Frank, a man who hangs out with Ron at the diner. Their engaging interactions at the counter were fun to watch. Mike Keller plays a police detective and Karl Miller appears as Anne’s tortured son Sam.

The production values of this piece were top notch in every way. Antje Ellermann designed the set that could be any town in our state, with bare trees, gray tones and quiet street sounds. The set decoration was spot on, from the back of the diner counter to the couches of Tom’s man cave. Costumes by Ilona Somogyi were current and authentic and the lighting designed by Russell H. Champa was pretty inspired. Scene changes were handled with scenery silently rising from the floor of the stage; the two changes where crew members had to come onstage gently reminded me that they actually were backstage. The direction of Mr. Butler made for a slow pace at times and I wondered why some actors had entire conversations with another actor with their back to the majority of the audience.

‘An Opening in Time’ runs through October 11 at Hartford Stage. There is garage parking that is conveniently located next to the theater.