Theater Review: “Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets” — Romantic Misfire
By David Greenham
Once it gets its bearings, Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets tosses and turns its way through the throes of hidden romance, miscommunication, reconciliation, and, eventually, heartbreak.
Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets, by Anne Undeland. Directed by Judy Braha. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord. Costume design by Chelsea Kerl. Lighting design by Kat C. Zhou. Sound composition and design by Dewey Dellay. Properties design by Lauren Corcuera. Intimacy direction by Angie Jepson. Produced by Gloucester Stage Company, East Main Street, Gloucester, MA, through July 24.
Jenna McFarland Lord’s set for Gloucester Stage Company’s Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets floats on a sea of words. At first glance, the intimate black box theater is a stylized version of an early 20th-century drawing room, living room, and bedroom. It is most likely a representation of a segment of the main house at novelist Edith Wharton’s famous Lenox estate, The Mount. It’s a seasonal living area; the furniture is covered in bed sheets. The color theme of the paint and trim features are lovely — muted pinks and off whites. But look closely. Throughout the room you can slowly make out handwritten texts. Word fragments can be seen along the face of the platformed bedroom and sitting room, in the ceiling trim, on the large curtain that stretches across the back of the space. Words even peek out on the floor underneath the carpets. The set is floating on the alphabet.
There is sense to the surreality. Massachusetts playwright Anne Undeland’s new work is a historical fiction inspired by a cache of love letters Wharton wrote to her lover, American journalist and author W. Morton Fullerton. Their three-year affair was a well-kept secret. Wharton’s marriage was failing at the time; Fullerton’s colorful past included homosexuality, a divorce, and a likely sexual relationship with his adopted sister and cousin. They met in Paris in 1907. When the affair ended in 1910, Wharton requested that Fullerton destroy every letter she wrote to him. He did not, and the love missives — 68 of them — remained undiscovered until 70 years later, when they were sold at auction.
Undeland’s fictional account features Wharton (Sarah Newhouse), and Fullerton (Ryan Winkles), along with their mutual friend, the author Henry James (Joshua Wolf Coleman), and an imagined character, Posy, Wharton’s Irish servant (Bridgette Hayes). The drama doesn’t begin in Wharton’s intriguing home, but in a posh Paris hotel, revealed far upstage after the back curtain is pulled aside. Wharton and Fullerton’s romance has eschewed the foreplay and, as the title suggests, has landed between the sheets.
We know, from Posy’s brief intro, that it is “Edith ‘Blinking’ Wharton!” Fullerton’s identity is revealed much more slowly. Back in Lenox, when a rather fraught Henry James tumbles onto the scene, we learn he was the one who introduced them. (A quick bit of Google research finds that Fullerton was Wharton’s literary agent in Paris in 1908.)
Once it gets its bearings, Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets, tosses and turns its way through the throes of hidden romance, miscommunication, reconciliation, and, eventually, heartbreak.
The sprawling set provides numerous acting areas for what becomes an episodic story. Meetings at various Paris luxury hotels reveal Edith’s insecurity, James’s frustrations, and Fullerton’s slippery intentions. Is there more to the play’s conflict than the telegraphed breakup? There is a section where Fullerton is being blackmailed by a former lover, who demands 50,000 francs. Fullerton approaches James for the money and James asks Wharton for the dough. Wharton doesn’t care what the reason is; she simply writes a check.
One moving and well-crafted episode gives us Wharton innocently reading a newspaper account of a young girl killed in a sledding accident. When she reads the name, Posy immediately collapses in a flood of tears. The girl is the daughter of the man she once loved. The prospect of marrying into poverty did not appeal, so the maid decided to remain in Wharton’s well-paid employ. The man had married another woman and they had a daughter. The child’s death reminds Posy of the life she gave up in order to live comfortably. Wharton musters up as much empathy as she can; she is surprised that the servants have such feelings. “We are exactly the same as you,” Posy says through her tears. Wharton is dumbfounded. It had never occurred to her that the servants were people with their own lives, loves, and losses.
It’s a nuanced moment in a play that feels as if it is still in development. This stark juxtaposition between patronizing privilege and the agony of the lower classes suggests what the script lacks. These characters have interesting back stories and banter engagingly, but they’re not complex people butting heads. In the Gloucester Stage Company production, Newhouse’s Wharton and Winkles’s Fullerton are psychologically fuzzy and rather unlikable. Coleman’s Henry James is mostly a caricature. It is very frustrating; the master of nuanced fictional characterization is painted with a broad and bumbling brush.
Playwright Undeland and the artistic team for this production are savvy theater practitioners with plenty of experience, so it’s disappointing that this staging is not coming together. The challenges of putting this doughy script across is compounded by the design team. Jenna McFarland Lord’s set, while gorgeous and sweeping, poses the challenges of a jungle gym: the actors zigzag their way from one acting area to the next. At times, Kat C. Zhou’s lights are too subdued to reveal the details of the performers’ facial expressions. At other times, they seem too bright, washing out the action. Chelsea Kerl’s costumes, while effectively stylized silhouettes of the period, are somewhat ill-fitting and seem bulky. The least successful technical element is Dewey Dellay’s soundscape, which wavers between romantic cinematic underscoring and rom-com uplift. Respected director Judy Braha often ends up reaching for a quick laugh or a gimmick when what we really long for is some depth.
And passion — that too is missing. It’s surprising because, thanks to the set design, the longing we need is right in front of us: the letters. Wharton’s effusions throb with desire: “Wherever you touch me, a heart beats under your touch.” They are triumphant: “I am like one who went out seeking a friendship and found a kingdom.” And, as the relationship crumbles, they are filled with heartache: “I am sad and bewildered beyond words.… My life was better before I knew you. That is, for me, the sad conclusion of this sad year.” There’s theatrical kindling aplenty here — eroticism, class, gender, creativity, deception. At the moment, though, Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets ends up just skimming through the linens.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.