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A CurtainUp Review

Things don't change in North Dormer. . .people just get used to them.—Charity. But things do change for Charity as her friendship with young architect Lucius Harney turns into love and he tells her "You're a day in June. The rest of the world is frozen in February."

Alyssa Hughlett as Charity Royall
(Photo: Kevin Sprague)
I first saw Dennis Krausnick's sensitive adaption Summer, the novella Edith Wharton called her "hot Ethan Frome" during the summer of 1999. This adaptation of the lesser known of Wharton's novels with Berkshire settings was directed by Shakespeare & Company's founder Tina Packer at the Stables, the Company's then Second Stage at Wharton's Lenox estate. It was quite a summer for this coming of age story since it also marked the premiere of an opera adaptation by the Berkshire Opera Company.

A lot has happened since I posted my reviews of both these events (1999 production review and Opera adaptation review). The opera company unfortunately closed down a few seasons ago. Shakespeare & Company moved from the Mount to a new home on Kemble Street. Fortunately, the move, though an enormous financial challenge, has given us two lovely, spacious theaters and the Company is thriving. As for the Wharton Estate, the main building, the Mount, has been beautifully restored and is abuzz with visitors touring the building and grounds and attending a full menu of lectures.

Despite enormous audience enthusiasm, the plays adapted from Wharton's novels and short stories to be performed in site-specific, intimate settings came to an end with the sale of the Springlawn Mansion that was part of the original Kemble Street property. At least they did until Catherine Taylor-Williams, a long-time artist-manager with Shakespeare & Company and Wharton fan Lauryn Franzoni decided to launch the Wharton Salon in hopes of bringing back some of these enjoyable plays to the Berkshires. Susan Wissler, the Mount's Executive Director, agreed that this was a fine idea and provided the space that allowed the Salon to get started. And so this worthy endeavor got underway last summer with just three performances of Xingu performed in the Wharton drawing room and featuring long-time Shakespeare & Company favorites Corina May, Dianne Prushka and her daughter Rory Hammond.

Now the Salon is back with a somewhat longer run, this time at the Stables auditorium. Mrs. Wharton's use of that adjective "hot" doesn't just differentiate this summertime romance from the wintertime tragedy of Ethan Frome. The adjective owes its double meaning to the fact, that unlike Ethan and Mattie, or for that matter most of Wharton's lovers, Charity Royall (Alyssa Hughlett) and Lucius Harney (Adam Gauger) do consummate their passion. And though Wharton didn't end this story quite as tragically as Ethan Frome, neither did she allow Summer to succumb to a happily ever after ending — but, as directed by Taylor-Williams, until the romance reaches its uncompromisingly realistic outcome, there's plenty of red hot sizzle between the young lovers.

Not that Charity and Lucius fall pell mell into each other's arms. This is after all 1917 and Charity, though uneducated and uneasy with herself as well as strangers, is proud and at first defensive and even hostile. As for Lucius, he is obviously a gentleman. He's a charmer but in no way a slick seducer. However, though it's clear that he has things going on that don't bode well for what will happen once his research for a book about old houses in Old Dormer is finished, he never comes off as a villain. This is also true of Miles Herter's portrayal of Charity's guardian Lucas Royal. Herter somehow makes you believe that he's not a lascivious creepy guy, too old to think about marrying his ward and that if he does get his wish it won't be a living Hell.

As with the original production I saw, also in the Stables, I was impressed with the clever way Dennis Krausnick adapted the novel so that the audience would hear Wharton's words not just retaining her poetry in the dialogue (for example, Lucius telling Charity "You're a day in June. The rest of the world is frozen in February.") but as narrated by several chorus characters. The two chief chorus speakers are mother and daughter Diane Prushka and Rory Hammond. Both ably double up as several additional characters and for Prushka this is a reprise, as she played the same parts in 1999.

The actors (mostly the Prushka-Hamond choristers) move the props around as needed and the excellent use made of this venue's back wall most effectively fronted at times by a see-through scrim is typical of some of the terrific plays I've seen in this theater during Shakespeare & Company's residency and which, like the current offering, go a long way towards making one forget the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere and less than comfy-cozy chairs.

Ms. Taylor-Williams has eliminated an intermission which abets the overall fluidity and has added a nice touch courtesy of violinist-composter Alexander Sovronsky's live musical accompaniment. However, though the Salon's Facebook page announced a 90-minute running time — an idea length for most one-acters— the first performance I saw hadn't quite managed to trim things down enough. I suspect she and her cast will manage to lose ten or fifteen minutes by the time you see it — and I recommend that you do. It's a sad, lovely and absorbing story, well acted and staged.

Adapted from Edith Wharton, by Dennis Krausnick
Director/Producer: Catherine Taylor-Williams
Co-Producer: Lauryn Franzoni
Cast: Adam Gauger (Lucius Harney), Reilly Hadden (Chorus,Lief Hyatt), Rory Hammond (Chorus, Ally Hawes, Julia Hawes), Miles Herter (Lucas Royall), Alyssa Hughlett (Charity Royall), Diane Prusha (Chorus, Miss Matchard, Verena Marsh, Dr. Merkle), and Robert Serrell (Chorus, Reverend Miles)
Music composed and performed by Alexander Sovronsky
Costumes: Arthur Oliver
Technical Director: Maia Robbins Zust and Berkshire Production Resources
Set: Carl Sprague
Costumes: Arthur Oliver
Technical Director: Maia Robbins Zust and Berkshire Production Resources
Production Stage Manager: Lyn Liseno
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission
Wharton Salon at the Mount's Stables Auditorium 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox, MA.
Performances August 18, 19, 25, 26 at 5:30pm; August 21, 22, 28, 29 at 10:30am
Tickets: $35, includes a day at the Mount
Reviewed by Elyse Sommr August 18, 2010
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