There was nothing really innocent about what Edith Wharton labeled “The Age of Innocence,” it was just that human frailties and foibles, at least for a certain class that lived below 23rd Street in the New York of the latter part of the nineteenth century, kept the flaunting of the Ten Commandments wrapped in damask and silk…and silence. In this world premiere of an adaptation by Douglas McGrath of the Wharton novel, produced in association with The McCarter Theatre Center, the damask and silk are in abundance and the society Wharton so deftly captured in her novel is on full display for all to see.
McGrath has decided to handle the adaptation as a memory play, with The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines) providing the memories. It’s a smart move, for although the first third of this one-act play, directed by Doug Hughes, seems to drag a bit, there’s really no other way, at least on the stage, to provide the exposition necessary to understand the setting, introduce the primary characters and establish the milieu that they inhabit.
Besides critiquing (and sometimes pillorying) the upper crust of New York society, Wharton’s main focus was on a delicate love triangle that involves May (Helen Cespedes), her suitor, Newland (Andrew Veenstra), and the Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), and once the stage is set, so to speak, it is this triangle that drives most of the play, with the Old Gentleman offering wistful commentary and pianist Yan Li providing the background music that captures the emotional flow of the play.
May and Newland have an “understanding,” although their engagement has yet to be announced. Both are children of the upper crust, and thus their courtship is bound by rules and regulations that will, once the couple’s intentions are made public, require a year of “getting to know each other” before the actual nuptials. Although feeling somewhat constrained, Newland is willing to go along with the arrangement until the arrival of the Countess, a soiled dove (she left her reportedly abusive husband in Europe and perhaps ran off with his clerk) who Newland finds entrancing. She is a breath of fresh air, all the more enticing for it perhaps being a bit tainted.
Once all of this has been established, the play seems to drop ballast and sail forward spiritedly. The wind in the sails is provided by Cespedes, Boggess and Veenstra, who in their respective scenes together develop an engaging chemistry. This is especially true in the scene, somewhat late in the play, when May, now married to Newland, announces that she is pregnant. This announcement elicited sighs and gasps from the audience for various reasons. It’s a compelling scene, as are the scenes between Newland and the Countess as they teeter on the brink of infidelity.
As is often expected of the Hartford Stage, the production values for “The Age of Innocence” are outstanding. Kudos first of all to costume designer Linda Cho, who captures the multiple styles of the era, including bustles and shortened bodices, with accentuated drapery where appropriate. Lighting designer Ben Stanton provides a profusion of moods and subtly directs the audience’s attention to where it belongs. Finally, the set, designed by John Lee Beatty, might be considered a hybrid, part representational and part presentational. There are elements that seem to evoke the Crystal Palace, the focus of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, while others seem to suggest one of the great train stations built in the nineteenth century. What is also suggested is the rigidity of the class system the play deals with and the societal cage in which Newland finds himself constrained.
Response to the adaptation might very well be dictated by familiarity with the material from which it is drawn. Perforce, McGrath has, at times, had to rely on implication, condensation and suggestion — those familiar with Wharton’s novel can fill in the blanks. Those who come fresh to the story may, at times, scratch their heads just a bit, especially during scenes that Wharton fully developed that are treated only in passing (this is especially true of the “If she turns” scene, which is pivotal in the novel but given only a fleeting moment in the play).
Wharton purists may cavil a bit, but this production of “The Age of Innocence” nicely captures the essence of the Wharton novel and, once the scene has been set, provides an engaging study of love constrained and thwarted. It successfully captures the era Wharton wrote about and engages the audience in the love triangle and portrays, through blocking and body language, the idea that May, the quintessential “innocent,” may have been the wisest of them all.
“The Age of Innocence” runs through May 6. For tickets or more information call 860-520-7125 or go to www.hartfordstage.org