So you’ve been mourning the passing of “Downtown Abbey” since its final episode aired two years ago? You can get a taste of that polite, upper-crust society (albeit American) with “The Age of Innocence”, the new stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel currently in a world premiere production at Hartford Stage. The play, presented in association with The McCarter Theatre Center, reeks of privilege and class.
Douglas McGrath’s uncluttered but faithful adaptation succeeds in bringing the tone of Wharton’s bittersweet tale about lost love in 1870s New York City to the stage with great feeling. The story is relayed as a memory by Newland Archer (a wonderful Boyd Gaines), as he recalls his early engagement to May (Helen Cespedes), the pampered daughter of a prestigious family. He loves May dearly until he meets her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), who is fleeing an unhappy marriage. The slow attraction between Newland (played as a younger man by handsome Andrew Veenstra) and the Countess sets the stage for repressed, forbidden passion under the eyes of an unforgiving society.
The play is rich with great performances in the large company of actors which include Darrie Lawrence stealing scenes as Manson Mingott, the kind of grand dowager Maggie Smith plays so well. The women in Newland’s life are a study in contrasts. Cespedes plays her spoiled privilege to the zenith but her superficiality often covers a spine of steel. Boggess is captivating as the Countess torn between duty and desire and her scenes with Veenstra burn with sexual heat. Best of all is Mr. Gaines who spends much of the play observing from the wings as an observer to the life he lived. His is a master class in how to actively listen on stage and his final scenes of recognition are truly heartbreaking.
Director Doug Hughes has staged what could be a staid and talky affair into a fluid, tense romance that moves swiftly from opera houses and society parties with fluidity and grace. He is assisted in this by John Lee Beatty’s gorgeous scenic design which resembles a gilded solarium with hanging chandeliers and tiled floor. Ben Stanton’s moody lighting is superb while Linda Cho’s excellent costuming offers a parade of the best the upper-classes can muster. One only wishes she had provided a few costume changes for the lead women especially since the play covers well over a year. Charles LaPointe’s wig and hair design is first-rate and the contributions of onstage pianist Yan Li, playing what amounts to an original score by Mark Bennett, cannot be undervalued. All told, this is a polished world premiere that is brimming with taste and elegance.
The “Age of Innocence” continues at Hartford Stage through Sunday, May 6. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.