by Mark G. Auerbach
Ah, the Gilded Age, when those on the top of New York’s “A List” fled their Park Avenue mansions for their summer cottages in Newport or The Berkshires, and sailed in luxury to ports of call in Europe. Everything was tony and posh back then, and money and class went together.
Hartford Stage and its partner, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center, gave us a dazzling and satisfying production of Murder on The Orient Express earlier this year. That show came to Hartford from New Jersey, and now, the two theatres are partnering again with an equally dazzling and satisfying adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. This production, which premieres in Hartford, opens McCarter’ Theatre’s season next fall.
When people mention Edith Wharton around here, thoughts almost immediately go to her summer “cottage”, The Mount, in Lenox, the 1902 mansion in The Berkshires that Wharton and her husband built, inspired by their visits to Europe. The Mount, a temple to the gilded age in America, was Wharton’s mountain hideaway until she sold the place in 1911. The Mount became an elegant private school, later residence to Shakespeare and Company, and today, a house museum which offers a glimpse into Wharton’s world.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s 12th novel, published in 1920, won the Pulitzer Prize the next year; Wharton was the first woman to receive that honor. Martin Scorsese adapted the book into his 1993 film romance starring Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. The Hartford Stage production, adapted for stage by Douglas McGrath, uses an old Gentleman, beautifully played by four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, to tell the story of his younger self, played by Andrew Veenstra, who falls for and marries May, a member of the well-heeled Welland family, played by Helen Cespedes. The younger man is also drawn to May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen, portrayed by Broadway’s Sierra Boggess, who us unhappily married to a count. The performances of the leading quartet are superb, as is the ensemble.
Director Doug Hughes, gives the play a powerful pacing. It’s accompanied by one of the most visually exciting Hartford Stage productions since Anastasia and Murder on The Orient Express, from John Lee Beatty’s solarium set, to Linda Cho’s elegantly appealing costumes. Ben Stanton’s lighting design makes Beatty’s sumptuous set and Cho’s fabulous costumes glisten with elegance. Sound designer Mark Bennett has created a lovely musical score, perormed with finesse by pianist Yan Li. Special mention must be made of Peter Pucci’s choreography, which keeps this production lilting, and of Ms. Boggess’ singing, a skill which makes her one of Broadways top musical actors, and is used to great effect in her rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer”, a Stephen Foster tune which came out just a few years before The Age of Innocence takes place.
The Age of Innocence continues at Hartford Stage through May 6. And, Hartford Stage has added the Olivier Award-winning London hit, Jeeves & Wooster in “Perfect Nonsense,” to next season. The comedy from brothers David and Robert Goodale, will have its American premiere in Hartford, staged by its original director Sean Foley.
Hartford Stage presentsThe Age of Innocence. By Edith Wharton. Adapted for the stage by Douglas McGrath.. Directed by Doug Hughes Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Ben Stanton.. Original music and sound design by Mark Bennett. Choreography by Peter Pucci..Pianist: Yan Li. Cast: Sierra Boggess, Helen Cespedes, Boyd Gaines, Darrie Lawrence, Deirdre Madigan, Haviland Morris, Josh Salt, Andrew Veenstra, Tony Ward, Nick Wyman; and Sara Norton, Daniel Owens, Sara Schwab, Alessandro Gian Viviano. A co-production with the McCarter Theatre. Center. through May 6. For tickets: 860-527-5151 or www.hartfordstage.org
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio. Mark produces and hosts ArtsBeat Radio on 89.5fm/WSKB Radio.