Review of The Inner House at the Wharton Salon in Partnership with The Mount
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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Gail Burns: This is your first time at a Wharton Salon, now do you understand why it sells out at most performances, and why it is so exciting theatrically?
Larry Murray: Yes, and more than that, the biggest benefit is that I understand Edith Wharton (1862-1937) a whole lot better than I did before. I think Dennis Krausnick’s adaptation of Wharton’s autobiography A Backward Glance gave me a far greater understanding of the writer from her earliest years to old age. Incorporating a few of her poems and letters gave us insights into her Inner House which was substantial.
Gail: I have read A Backward Glance and a biography of Wharton, and Krausnick has done an excellent job of telescoping a long and full life into 75 minutes of theatre. The Inner Houseis an accurate portrait of Wharton.
Larry: Tod Randolph took a spill last week, but proved to be the trouper.
Gail: She is indeed! Although we had been warned that she might perform seated much of the time I throught she moved naturally, even sitting on the floor and rising again. Her obvious injury was on the left side of her face, although much had been done with make-up and bandages to normalize her appearance. Luckily Arthur Oliver has costumed her in the fashion of the turn of the 20th century, so she is covered from chin to toe to wrist and any other injuries are well hidden. Of course we saw her very soon after her fall. Time will work its healing magic.
Larry: You know when you haven’t seen a performance before you never know what to expect. The stage was set in a room that might have been her library, her reading room, her office, or all three. When the story begins there are shadows on the curtains covering the main door, and some rustling. Slowly they part and we see Randolph as Edith Wharton, and she enters the room as if she is the spirit revisiting a dearly loved memory. No words are spoken for several moments but with her eyes and body language you can see her say hello to all the familiar, and loved, objects.
Gail: I loved the set that Kate Sinclair Foster has designed. I was initially disappointed that this play was being performed in The Stables Theatre and not in the house itself. To see “Edith Wharton” in her beloved home would have been really, really special, but we were on the grounds and this was the next best thing. I have not been inside The Mount itself since it was officially reopened after its major restoration and so there may be reasons why creating performance space inside is no longer possible, but anyone with a memory of seeing Krausnick’s adaptations performed in The Mount when Shakespeare & Company were in residence there understands what was missing.
But Foster’s set combined with Maia Robbins-Zusts evocative lighting and Alexander Sovronsky’s sound design and original score did much to transport me not only the short distance to The Mount itself, but also to the sidewalks of post-Civil War New York City, to Newport, Rhode Island, the battlefields of France, the streets of Paris…I was not, ultimately, disappointed in that I wasn’t in the house
Larry: Director Normi Noël must have tons of self assurance to have taken the pacing so slow, and Randolph seemed to savor every word as she delivered them. Only when the history of Wharton’s life turned to Paris and the war years did she start to become a bubbling, extemporaneous person. Perhaps that reflected her feelings at that time, and her joy when The Great War ended and at last she could travel to her beloved French countryside. But there were sections of the text that…just…seemed…to…go…on….forever.
Gail: We don’t need to always be in a 21st century rush, Larry! In fact I think the pace of modern life began to spin out of control after the First World War. People who lived through those years said that everything changed. I think it changed the most for the leisured classes.
Larry: I have to hand it to Catherine Taylor-Williams, the Producing Artistic Director of The Wharton Salon, who has persisted over the years in mounting a new literary and theatrical snapshot of Wharton’s colorful life. With Krausnick doing the writing, they come up great representative bits of indelible Wharton verse, too. I loved the way she called pets “inarticulate animals” and how she approached life in general, this quote in particular: “Make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity—to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.” I could live by those words.
Gail: Krausnick is very good at maintaining Wharton’s authentic voice while making the language accessible to modern ears. I personally don’t find Wharton’s prose at all overblown, but then I am a Wharton kinda girl. People who read exclusively contemporary writing might find her wordy.
But the greatest challenge The Wharton Salon faces is attracting a certain segment of the population, namely men, in to see their work. Wharton is seen as a “woman’s writer” – I even had to tug a bit to get you in the door, Larry!
Larry: Yes, that’s true. Sometimes I can be quite resistant to seeing works by, or about, older writers.
Gail: Edith Wharton can be quite wonderful – what with the complex heroines in her novels and treatises on womanly arts like garden layout and interior design. Here Krausnick takes his title from the following passage in which Wharton compares a woman as “a great house full of rooms”…
“But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
― Edith Wharton, The Fullness of Life from The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
Here we are given a glimpse into Edith Wharton’s own “innermost room” symbolized by the layers of curtains she parted as she made her entrance, and exit, from our presence.
Larry: Seeing The Inner House has instilled a desire to read more of Wharton’s work, and so I can say that not only is this a wonderful afternoon or evening’s entertainment, it will open new windows for anyone who takes the trouble to see it, either to renew an old friendship with Wharton’s work, or to start fresh and rediscover a writer of some of the most brilliant gems in literature.
The Wharton Salon in Partnership with The Mount presents The Inner House, August 15-26, 2012, Adapted by Dennis Krausnick, Directed by Normi Noël, Produced by Catherine Taylor-Williams, Featuring Tod Randolph as Edith Wharton. About 90 minutes with no intermission. WhartonSalon.org 1-800-838-3006