Through May 6th, Hartford Stage is mounting a gorgeous world premiere production of “The Age of Innocence,” adapted by Douglas McGrath from the Edith Wharton novel and beautifully directed by Doug Hughes. Yet McGrath has made a mistake in turning the story into a memory play. This particular drama, about doomed love in an airless upper class social milieu, should unfold as it happens, leaving us breathless as we wait for the next event. We should also feel pummeled, as the main characters do, by clashing values, expectations, demands, and hypocrisies. In McGrath’s memory play we lose these two crucial elements: complexity and suspense.
The novel, which takes place in the 1870s, is layered, nuanced, and (considering its relentless predecessor, The House of Mirth) unexpectedly humane in its examination of a New York family (and by extension, an entire class of people) that values convention above all and is highly suspicious of original thinking, and, especially, original, spontaneous, feeling. The central love story is built on suspense.
Newland Archer, on the cusp of a most appropriate marriage to the young, lovely, and adoring young May, meets May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has just arrived in New York. The Countess has returned from Poland to her family, fleeing an abusive husband and bringing scandal in her wake: she either did or did not have an affair with her husband’s secretary.
Yet Newland, against his will, is drawn not only to Ellen’s beauty, bohemian ways, and intelligence, but also to her kindness towards those women who, like she, have been tainted by circumstances beyond their control—an important element that, most unfortunately, McGrath leaves out. Newland marries May, but continues to long for a life with Ellen; she, too, loves him, but refuses to destroy her cousin’s happiness.
A poignantly heartbreaking Boyd Gaines, as Newland in old age, narrates this version, and because of his stooped shoulders, his softly saddened voice, and his wise, tired face, we know, from his first moment, that he regrets his choices. Thus, no suspense. And since the script remains tightly focused on the three main characters of young Newland, Ellen, and May, as they tug and tear at each other’s hearts, much of Wharton’s detailed investigation into this complicated social world is gone. Thus, this stripped down approach to the novel too easily invites the question, “Why choose this particular book, so rich in social commentary and ambivalence? Why not choose—or write—a love story that is already smaller in scope?”
These are significant obstacles, and it is to director Doug Hughes’ credit, along with the fine cast, that this condensed memory play will still, perhaps, move you to tears by its end. For the most part, Hughes has cast beautifully. As Newland, Andrew Veenstra’s particular kind of male beauty transports us in time, and he plays the many notes of the character with delicacy and passion. Sierra Boggess, as Ellen, physically matches the role but doesn’t quite generate the exotic charisma or quixotic temperament. However, this may be because McGrath’s script only allows her, in scene after scene, to be torn between her heart and her conscience.
It would be tempting to think of Gaines as carrying the production, but Hughes has cast a secret weapon: Helen Cespedes, as May. In the role of this seemingly shallow girl, Cespedes is instantly fascinating. Her animated face, her lively dark eyes, and her delicate but tenacious hold on Newland (whether physically or figuratively) tell us that he is the one and only man for her. True to the novel, she plays a young woman who is more determined, and more deeply and genuinely in love, than either of the others are capable of being.
Each of the other society women are superb, but Darrie Lawrence, as Mrs. Manson Mingott—the ultimate matriarch and grandmother to May and Ellen—owns the stage from her wheelchair, set always center stage. Lawrence is by turns funny, outrageous, and terrifying in her power. Don’t let the gloriously bright lavender dress fool you: this woman is made of steel.
Hughes has made a wonderful choice in placing a grand piano onstage, complete with a pianist—Yan Li—who adds beautiful drawing room music to the evening. And a particular song plays a moving role in McGrath’s script—a lovely choice on his part.
John Lee Beatty’s set is a wonder: most scenes take place in a drawing room, and in place of walls, Beatty has surrounded the characters with an ornate, black iron cage. Charles LaPointe’s period wig and hair designs, and Linda Cho’s colorful and sumptuous costumes, tell each character’s story, from May all in white, with white gloves that extend above her elbows, to Ellen in the darkest of inky navy, shoulders exposed. Ben Stanton’s lighting, too, echoes the characters’ moods and highlights their painful differences.
Largely thanks to Hughes, the production as a whole succeeds at the level of emotion. Yet I left the theatre wanting more—more details, longer scenes, a stronger sense of place, and above all, sharper suspense and greater complexity. Maybe the value of putting this particular novel onstage is to encourage those who haven’t read “The Age of Innocence” also to want more: perhaps they will delve into the book.