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|A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Edith Wharton's novels and short stories have been as pivotal to Shakespeare & Company's growth as the Bard's plays. Her short pieces have been a mainstay of the popular tea-time series. A number of her novels have been presented both at the Wharton and the Stables theaters. After several seasons of mostly her short pieces in Shakespeare & Company's repertory, it's a pleasure to be able to report on this new full-scale original adaptation of her 1917 novel Summer, directed by the company's founder and artistic director, Tina Packer.
Most people associate Edith Wharton with her insightful stories of men and women whose lives are circumscribed by the codes of American and European society. But she also had great empathy for those living far simpler lives near her estate in Lenox, like Mattie Silver and Ethan Frome who had their fateful sledding accident on a hill at the center of Lenox.
Summer, Wharton's only country novel besides Ethan Frome is not as well known as some of her longer novels, but it is exceptionally readable. As adapted by Dennis Krausnick, it also proves itself to be eminently adaptable for the stage, its plot and characters subtle and rich enough to work without elaborate stage craft. The Berkshire Opera Company's first commissioned opera opening later this month is also based on this story and it will afford us a fascinating opportunity to see the book brought to life in yet another genre. (The librettist, Joan Vail Thorne, is a playwright whose most recent play The Exact Center of the Universe is slated to return to Off-Broadway this Fall).
The plot of Summer centers on the sexual awakening of young Charity Royall, born in a Berkshire mountain community but brought up in the nearby village of North Dormer where life is more civilized, if hardly more exciting. Like the society heroines of House of Mirth and Age of Innocence, Charity yearns to break free from the stifling influences of her life -- the mysterious mountain kinfolk she doesn't know but who cast an ominous shadow over her and the guardian who brought her down from the mountain and now wants her to marry him. Her part-time job in the dusty local library no one ever visits seems like a dead-end, a prison -- until an attractive young architect, Lucius Harney walks through its doors.
Unlike Mattie and Ethan (and most of Wharton's men and women) whose love affair is never consummated, Charity and Lucius do have their summer of passion which is why this has often been referred to as the hot Ethan Frome. An illicit affair may no longer shock readers as it did when it was published in 1917 -- but the yearnings and betrayals and the author's unwillingness to settle for an easy happy ending give Charity's story a timeless relevance.
Mr. Krausnick who a few seasons ago gave us a very fine adaptation of Ethan Frome (see link), has once again seamlessly moved the story from page to stage, preserving evey dramatic detail and without losing the nuances of Wharton's elegant prose. The subtleties of the characters, the rich evocation of time and place, the joy and inevitable ending of Charity's season of love -- it all adds up to a most satisfying two hours.
Tina Packer and her directing associates have smartly cast two actors still new to the company in the leading roles. Tori Rhoades (second season) is just right as the vulnerable Charity. She is uneducated but smart, needy but proud. Henry David Clarke (first season) is equally good as the well educated "city boy" Lucius Harney -- he's charming and handsome but not slick.
Four of the five "old timers" -- Diane Prusha, Josef Hansen, Karen Torbjornsen and Jonathan Croy -- are most effectively used to play multiple individual characters and as a chorus that smoothly handles both plot transitions and the movement of props. Michael Hammond manages to make the idea of being married to Lawyer Royall repulsive and yet not quite a fate worse than death.
The set, as is usual in The Stables (which is named for its original function), hardly worth describing. When the play and performances are good enough, as is the case here, theater goers will accept it as part of the season and the site specific setting. When Shakespeare & Company moves to its new home several seasons from now, these Wharton plays will be only slightly less site specific since the new location is also in Lenox. However, the new venues may well dictate somewhat more sophisticated staging which may in turn help to attract further afield theaters to give world premieres like Summer a life beyond Lenox. If the stunning set for the recent production of Richard III at the nearby Duffin Theater is any indication, Ms. Packer and her talented troupe are certainly up to such a challenge.