Veteran Shakespeare & Company members Corinna May, Diane Prusha, and David Joseph contribute satisfyingly polished performances.
The Wharton Comedies: Roman Fever and The Fullness of Life. Two Edith Wharton stories adapted by Dennis Krausnick. Directed by Normi Noel at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA, through September 10.
By Helen Epstein
Edith Wharton’s short stories have been of special interest to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox ever since artistic director Tina Packer established the theater at Wharton’s summer residence, The Mount, nearly 40 years ago. Shakespeare & Company actor and Director of Training Dennis Krausnick has previously adapted the short work of Henry James and Wharton with great élan, and these playlets have been previously produced at the graceful home she built for herself in 1902. Roman Fever and The Fullness of Life mark the first time these one-act Wharton adaptations, directed by Normi Noel, have been given a full theatrical production.
“Roman Fever” is one of the late and perhaps the most famous of Wharton’s stories. First published in Liberty magazine in 1934, it centers around the life stories of two rich American widows sitting on a terrace overlooking the Colosseum, sorting out their thoughts about their nubile daughters, their own life stories, and their love for the same charismatic man.
“The Fullness of Life,” her second published story, is set in the afterlife and is less successful. But it contains, to my mind, one of the most damning descriptions of marriage ever written. When asked whether she was fond of her husband, the protagonist replies, “I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse.” A passage viewed by Wharton biographers as autobiographical follows:
I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawingroom, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.
Veteran Shakespeare & Company members Corinna May, Diane Prusha, and David Joseph contribute polished performances, giving voice to the intelligence, humor, and subtlety in Wharton’s prose. I particularly enjoyed Prusha’s Grace Ansley, the ostensibly timid, boring, and self-deprecating knitter in “Roman Fever,” who turns out to have been the more unconventional of the two mothers.
The production, guided by veteran Shakespeare & Company director Normi Noel, features beautiful set design by Patrick Brennan, gorgeous and colorful costumes by Kiki Smith, and mellifluous and witty sound design by Amy Altadonna.
Helen Epstein reviews regularly for The Arts Fuse. Her new book, The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, will be published in 2018.