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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Wharton One-Acts: The Mission of Jane & The Promise
The Lenox landscape Edith Wharton loved and the rich landscape of her stories and her novels have been an integral part of Shakespeare & Company's growth into one of this area's prime cultural institutions. The Company long called Wharton's s Lenox estate, The Mount, home and when it moved it was to a neighboring Gilded Age property.
Wharton's novels and novellas inspired numerous staged adaptations, including her famous Lenox-set Ethan Frome and Summer. Like her friend Henry James, she also left a rich legacy of short stories and it is these short stories that prompted a popular series known as The Wharton One-Acts -- each act an adaptation of a story by Wharton or another master of this genre presented in the salon setting, initially the Mount's parlor and currently a similar space at the Spring Lawn Mansion. Were Mrs. Wharton alive, I'm certain that she would recognize that the success of this series owes much to Shakespeare & Company founding member Dennis Krausnick's savvy page to stage adaptations.
These theatrical tea-time pieces (tea, as well as lemonade and cookies are served FREE at intermission) have been sorely missed during the past few seasons. Happily the One-Act afternoons are back with a delectable pairing of The Mission of Jane (published in Harper's Magazine in 1902 and The Promise. The latter is the English title for Les Metteurs en Scene), one of two stories the author wrote in French (published in La Revue des deux mondes in 1908).
The two playlets are once again expertly adapted by Krausnick and are helmed with wit and style by Eleanor Holdridge. Each piece showcases the author's talent for social satire and deals with her recurring themes of love and marriage within the mores of society at the turn of the century. Each is told through just two protagonists.
Corinna May and Jason Asprey are clearly having a wonderful time playing these very different characters -- the very proper but drolly amusing New Yorkers in The Mission of Jane and the sophisticated adventurers collaborating as matchmakers between the vulgar ambitions of the nouveaux rich Americans and cash-poor upper crust Europeans (She's American and he's a French aristocrat; both lack the money necessary to support the good good life to which they've become accustomed).
While past Shakespeare & Company productions like Jack and Jill and Betrayal have made me think of May and Allyn Burrows as ideally suited to any play calling for a handsome couple with strong interaction about lovers, Asprey turns out to be a fine co-star while Burrows is otherwise engaged (as King John at Company's main stage). He, as the up-tight New York husband and she as his aphorism-spouting, beautiful but not too smart wife are terrifically amusing in The Mission of Jane. Both reveal the vulnerability beneath the sophisticated veneer of their characters in The Promise. If I have one complaint about Asprey's performance it's that his role as the mission-bound Jane's father calls for an American, not a British accent.
Krausnick's skill as an adapter are particularly evident in the way he manages to retain the full flavor of the original stories, which were written in the third-person, within the structure of a two-person drama. Thus, while we never see Jane -- the abandoned orphan baby that changes the passionless, dull marriage of Alice and Julian Lethbury -- we come to know this remarkable adopted child through a series of smoothly inserted, not too long or too short monologues during which Alice and Julian take the audience into their confidence. Their monologues and dinner table interchanges over the course of twenty years are a marvelous blend of Wharton's words, spiced with a generous dash of Krausnick's wit. Similarly, we don't meet but get to know Mrs. Smithers or Catherine through Blanche and Jean's as they set to work to open social doors for the millionaire widow and her marriageable daughter.
The adaptation, the direction and the performances never fail Wharton's unique gift for letting her stories unfold so that we see where they're going but always with a few surprises. While both stories are on the surface as easy and pleasant as that tea and cookie intermission, Ms. Holdridge's director's notes are right on target in declaring them to have considerable depth.
With Spring Lawn Theater such an atmospherically apt setting, the plays work well with Carl Sprague's simple scenic design -- the dining room of a New York Brownstone for Mission and a sitting room off the lobby of a Paris hotel for The Promise. Kiki Smith's costumes for Corinna May are mouthwateringly beautiful and the lovely Ms. May shows them off to best advantage.
Edith Wharton published eleven volumes of short stories in her lifetime (some are available as e-texts for free reading, the complete collection has been published by the Libary of America), so there are plenty of opportunities to create future additions to this series. Unfortunately, this season's offering, alternating through Labor Day with a play by a living Berkshire author (Ice Glen) , is likely to be the last at Spring Lawn which has been sold to someone more able to finance the much needed repairs. However, this ever enterprising Company is more than likely to carve out a second stage on its remaining property. It may not be quite as atmospheric, but with the help of committed Wharton enthusiasts like Dennis Krausnick and actors able to inhabit her characters, I feel optimistic that the Wharton One-Acts will endure.