“An Opening In Time,” which opens September 17th at the Hartford Stage, is an all-Connecticut show. Both director Oliver Butler and playwright Christopher Shinn were born and raised in Connecticut. And that’s where Shinn has set his newest work.
Christopher Shinn is a student of human nature. He’s especially concerned with what he calls the current tendency to self-victimize and assign blame to others, while denying reality.
That’s true of the characters in “An Opening In Time.” After spending years in a loveless marriage, the widowed Anne returns to her hometown for a new beginning. The first person she meets is the teenaged George. George is played by Brandon Smalls. Deborah Hedwall is Anne.
GEORGE: We were throwing the ball. I missed it.
ANNE: Oh, that’s all right.
GEORGE: It made a mark. I can paint it.
ANNE: Well, I don’t know what color that is. I wonder if the previous left any paint in the garage. Not that bad. You live next door?
GEORGE: For now, yeah. They’re my foster parents. I’m George.
ANNE: Nice to meet you, George. My name is Anne. I was just about to have some tea. Would you and your friend like to join me? I have oatmeal raisin cookies I’ve made.
GEORGE: It’s my brother. We’re still throwing the ball.
Christopher Shinn spent his boyhood exploring areas of Hartford. He says he was surprised by the poverty he saw there, just five minutes from his upper middle class home in Wethersfield. He got a closer look at the city while going to high school at the Hartford Academy of the Arts.
“We were in the South End in a former funeral home. But you know it was a very diverse place,” Shinn says. “A lot of kids in the suburbs are sheltered, but you know I feel like I had access to many different worlds and was a part of many different worlds growing up.”
Shinn’s world expanded further while studying with Tony Kushner at NYU’s Tisch School. In 1997, the 23-year-old Shinn had his first play accepted for production, at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Since then, his plays have been produced in London and New York, where he won an Obie Award in 2005 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2008.
Shinn often portrays his characters as manipulative because they have a tough time facing reality.
“Or are they distorting reality for their own reasons, their own selfish or self serving reasons?” Shinn says. “So that question to me is fascinating. Are these people reasonable, believable or are they manipulating reality to suit their own ends and self-justify.”
It’s a question Shinn asks repeatedly in his plays. “An Opening In Time” is about first, second and third chances for the characters who are stuck, says director Oliver Butler.
“And they’re stuck in prisons that they have themselves created sometimes over time or sometimes through very intense life experiences,” Butler says. “And it’s about them trying with different levels of success to make tiny changes in their life that will ultimately lead to much larger, more fulfilled existences.”
Including the possibility of rekindling an old romance. Before she left town, lead character Anne, a former high school teacher, and Ron, director of the school musicals, came close to admitting their love for each other. Since then, they’ve both made up excuses for missing that chance.
While having breakfast at the local diner, Ron discovers that after 30 years, Anne has moved back to town. Ron is played by Patrick Clear. The waitress, Anetta, is Kati Brazda.
RON: An old friend who used to live here just moved back to town. I was wondering why, thought it might be that her husband died. He didn’t like it here. I know her son lives nearby now. He was a high school chorus teacher. Got arrested last spring for a relationship with a student.
ANETTA: He has jail?
RON: I think the paper said he pled guilty to reduced charges and got a suspended sentence. Maybe that has something to do with her moving back.
ANETTA: You ever go with students? Maybe she wants to get a big part?
RON: Not even when you could get away with it, Anetta.
ANETTA: What about this woman, you and her?
RON: I was faithful to my ex- wife. Don’t ask me why.
The playwright, Shinn, says he’s spent 10 years in psychoanalysis. And he says he’s learned a great deal about his own foibles as well as what he calls the impenetrable shell of narcissism that prevents many from empathizing with other people’s suffering. That’s a shell Shinn says he’d like to break through.
“So my hope, yes, is that my work is entertaining certainly and people enjoy it, but also that something comes alive internally whether it be the person’s memories or how they think about themselves or reality,” Shinn says. “And it doesn’t need to necessarily happen during the moment they’re watching the play, but that maybe in the days or weeks to come whatever got unsettled or disrupted inside of them, and bring about some thoughts and new feelings that enrich the person’s life.”
Missed chances and new beginnings are part of Christopher Shinn’s “An Opening In Time,” which has its world premiere Thursday at the Hartford Stage.
Correction: The version of this story that aired on the radio included the wrong title for the play. “An Opening In Time” is the correct title.