by Roseann Cane
Known primarily for her witty, insightful short stories and novels about America’s upper class, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) had a sharp-eyed insider’s view of those who lived lives of privilege. This daughter of privilege traveled widely throughout her life. She was also the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Innocence in 1920), and a dedicated intellectual who counted Sinclair Lewis, Henry James, André Gide, and Jean Cocteau among her closest friends.
Shakespeare & Company founding member Dennis Krausnick has adapted two of Wharton’s short stories, Roman Fever (first published in 1934) and The Fullness of Life (first published in 1892) into one-act plays, which are now appearing as A Perfect Pair of Wharton Comedies at the Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
Stylishly and skillfully directed by Normi Noel, both plays feature the same cast of three fine actors, Corinna May, Diane Prusha, and David Joseph. Patrick Brennan’s sets capture the time (and in one case, the timelessness) and place of both plays very nicely, transporting us to a fine hotel in 1930s Rome, and later, to a waiting area in the Hereafter. Stephen D. Ball’s lighting design is beautifully wrought, and Amy Altadonna has done a lovely job with sound design
Krausnick has succeed nicely in adapting what may be Wharton’s most famous story, Roman Fever. May and Prusha play two recently widowed New York society women, Alida Slade and Grace Ansley, who find each other in the same Rome hotel where they’d stayed as young women. Both have brought their blossoming daughters, who are now about the same age as Slade and Ansley were on their own first visit to Rome. In her sterling portrayal of Mrs. Slade, May transmits the tightly coiled force of a woman who has evolved from a lusty, envious young beauty to an exquisitely turned-out middle-aged grande dame who seethes with the memory of slights, real or imagined, and is distraught to find herself solitary and undefined, after many years of recognition through her husband’s identity.
Prusha’s Mrs. Ansley, who calmly knits as her friend drinks a good deal of wine and paces along the hotel terrace, is a formidable foil. She exhibits a natural, calm containment as her facial expressions subtly reveal an inner strength and self-assurance that Mrs. Slade is unable to read. Both actresses are marvelous to watch, as is David Joseph’s Waiter, who replenishes the wine and charmingly sings offstage. Kiki Smith’s costumes splendidly communicate the differences between the women while remaining faithful to the period as well as the women’s social status.
The second play, Krausnick’s adaptation of The Fullness of Life, is a very different story, literally and figuratively. May, Prusha, and Joseph offer well-crafted portrayals that I assume are appropriate to Krausnick’s adaptation. However, I’m afraid the adaptation reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of Wharton’s story, or perhaps a desire to play for easy laughs.
Wharton’s The Fullness of Life navigates the death of a woman through her ascension to the Hereafter, where she meets a being, The Spirit of Life, with whom she discusses what it really means to live.
The Woman reveals that she has a sense of what her life could have meant through fleeting but profound episodes she enjoyed in her travels and in her encounters with great works of art. She eloquently, passionately describes her numinous experiences. The Spirit of Life asks whether she found such feeling in her marriage, through love of her husband, and the Woman explains that while she was very fond of him, he lacked the capacity to understand such revelations. Eventually, The Spirit explains that she is to be rewarded with a man who is a kindred soul with whom she will spend eternity.
Prusha, as The Woman, is costumed in dull shapeless grays that give her the appearance of an average, frumpy middle-class woman, and her dialogue and movement are, in keeping with Krausnik’s script, that of a sweet, confused Victorian-era housewife. As Spirit, May brings to mind a Greek goddess, lovely and majestic, and kindly tolerant of the Woman’s simple manner. When the Woman is introduced to her kindred soul, Man (Joseph) enters as a youthful beauty straight out of a bodice ripper.
The audience exploded into gales of laughter at the sight of the matronly, plain woman and this Victorian Fabio, and the laughter continued throughout as the beautiful young Man wooed the Woman and as he registered shock at the possibility of rejection.
But Wharton wrote of the privileged upper class, and surely the Woman we see in this play could never have afforded the travels she describes. Moreover, Wharton never mentions age or physical appearance in this story. As she writes about Spirit introducing the Woman to the Man, “She looked up and saw that a man stood near whose soul (for in that unwonted light she seemed to see his soul more clearly than his face) drew her toward him with an invincible force.”
By reducing a soul-to-soul experience to a mockery of the coupling of a frumpy woman and a much younger, beautiful man, isn’t he reducing the numinous to a sexist sitcom? I think so. I yearned for what might have been, had Krausnick not resorted to easy laughs.
Shakespeare & Company presents The Wharton Comedies, adapted by Dennis Krausnick from the short stories Roman Fever and The Fullness of Life by Edith Wharton, directed by Normi Noel, running August 17 – September 10, 2017, in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare & Company campus at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA. Set design by Patrick Brennan. lighting design by Stephen Ball, costume design by Kiki Smith, sound design by Amy Altadonna, stage manager Fran Rubenstein. CAST: David Joseph as The Waiter/The Man; Corinna May as Alida Slade and The Spirit of Life; and Diane Prusha as Grace Ansley and The Woman.
Tickets for The Wharton Comedies are available online at shakespeare.org, or by calling Shakespeare & Company’s box office at (413) 637-3353. The Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. Shakespeare & Company is located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, Massachusetts. This production is generously sponsored by Natalie & Howard Shawn and Eleanor Lord & Margaret Wheeler.