If you grew up somehow influenced by the social aura of New York and the rules that govern polite society along the East Coast you will fall to your knees, trembling with a mixture of fear and devotion, in the presence of Douglas McGrath’s stage version of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” now playing at Hartford Stage. It’s directed by Doug Hughes, on a handsome set designed by John Lee Beatty, with lighting by Ben Stanton, and glorious period costumes by Linda Cho. Mark Bennett provides original music and impressive sound design, and Yan Li is the pianist who provides the onstage background music for much of the staging.
So, why such excitement? Wharton’s novel tells the story of May Welland (Helen Cespedes), whose prominent family will be attached to the equally prominent family of Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra) when their engagement is announced. May has a cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Bogess), who has returned to New York from Europe to escape an unhappy marriage. That raises many questions and even more eyebrows when Ellen attends the opera one evening at the Academy of Music, for it is thought 1) that marriage is an unescapable commitment, and 2) if you might be trying to escape it you certainly should not be brazen enough to show up in a family box at the Academy of Music. The possibility of shame-by-association puts stress and strain upon Meg and Newland. But they befriend the Countess and attempt to have her included in their social circle as they can.
Newland finds, however, that Ellen is often on his mind. One day, while sending his daily (!) bunch of lilies of the valley to Meg, he also sends some yellow roses to Ellen, and later when he is visiting, to help her with legal problems, he also spends time singing with her a Stephen Foster melody [‘Beautiful Dreamer’]. In this staged version (no mention of singing together in the book), their singing comfortably together becomes an intense symbol of the creative excitement he feels when he’s with Ellen versus the structured but never-soaring life he has with Meg.
Spoiler here… He does marry Meg, and they have beautiful children. When Ellen moves to Washington, he attempts to follow her; when she decides to return to Europe he wishes they could just go far away together. Then it is she who refuses. Time passes, and Meg dies. When an aging Newland goes with his son, Dallas (Josh Salt), on a trip to Paris, new revelations occur. But those will keep until after you’ve seen this beautiful show. Probably, like me, you’ll hum ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ as you’re driving home.
The narration of the story is provided by a character called “The Old Gentleman” (Boyd Gaines). He is always lurking in the background, and is, of course, the other self, or over self, of Newland Archer. The effect of the two dimensions of the man is powerful and Gaines is masterful in the role.
www.hartfordstage.org for tickets and information, or call 860-527-5151
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre April 30, 2018