Over their years of residence at The Mount, Edith Wharton's mansion in Lenox, Shakespeare & Company developed in their adaptations of the writer's short stories a supremely civilized form of entertainment: The Wharton One Acts. Presented in Edith's drawing room, with tea on the terrace at intermission, the Literary Lady of the Mount seemed to preside over the plays. We in the audience were her guests. She allowed us into her exclusive world: she presented her acquaintance to us and even encouraged some laughter at their expense-- but only if we were able to rise to the occasion! When we did rise, the buoyancy could linger for years-- I'm smiling now as I write this, as a series of deft and delightful scenes from Wharton One Acts Past enact themselves before my mind's eye.
When Shakespeare & Company was evicted from the Mount I was afraid that I would never experience that peculiar Wharton buoyancy again. But the One Acts are back this season, transplanted in full bloom from The Mount to a similar Lenox mansion, Spring Lawn, across town in the company's new location. Dennis Krausnick's canny deployment of Wharton's words and director Eleanor Holdridge's management of the company's signature staging style-- one that combines specific period detail with a lean Thornton Wilder expressionism-- reaches a new peak of perfection in the performances of veteran actors Corinna May and Jason Asprey. The actors are expert at presenting the polished surfaces of privileged American life on the cusp between the 19th and 20th centuries, at confiding the characters' inner thoughts though direct address to the audience in the intimate domestic space, and at conveying unacknowledged depth though significant glances or the escape of a sudden small gesture whose lack of control is like a thunderclap amongst the teacups. They create-- or re-create-- a world very different from the daily one of the casually clad tourists who assemble in the drawing room to watch, or from the competing entertainments available to us on screens or stages elsewhere, and it is a world that is utterly engaging. We emerge an hour and a half later amused: but also enlarged and enlightened.
The first play, adapted from Wharton's 1904 story "The Mission of Jane" is presented to us by one Julian Lethbury (Asprey) a New York socialite with an ironic wit who is resigned to the boredom of his marriage to a lovely and good natured but far from clever wife, Alice (May). One day as they sit down to an elaborate meal he notices that she appears to have something on her mind-- or on what in her passes for a mind. He is astonished when the "something" turns out to be not a dress or a party but a baby girl who has been abandoned in a charity hospital upon her mother's death. It is such a good baby, so pretty, the nurses agree that its dead mother must have been a lady!
At this sudden revelation of a yearning maternal instinct in his otherwise placid wife it dawns upon Lethbury that he has been neglectful, and he assents to their adoption of Jane. The child will give his poor bored wife a harmless occupation, and although it is sure to be an annoyance to have such an addition to his household he is willing to do the generous, gentlemanly, thing.
Krausnick's dramatization of "The Mission of Jane" is structured by the staging conceit of a single decades-spanning formal meal: each scene is one of the many courses, served by a uniformed maid. The various comestibles appear, are tasted, the couple converse; there is a monologue or bridging action as the table is cleared and props are re-set. When the next course is served, time -- from a few days to several years-- has passed, and the married pair's discussion reflects Jane's transforming effect on the household and the progressively more challenging stages of the girl's growth and education.
After iced tea, lemonade, and cookies at intermission, we are treated to the second Wharton One Act, "The Promise", adapted from the story "Les Metteurs en Scene." In it, Corinna May plays an intelligent, beautiful, and well connected American woman who has a taste for the elegancies of life that is far above what her own resources would allow. Blanche Lambert lives beyond her means by attaching herself to wealthy Americans who wish to marry their well-dowered daughters into the aristocratic families of Europe who need new money to support their crumbling estates and expensive life style. She takes them in hand, polishes them up, and introduces them to her titled friends. These friends, particularly the gentlemen, enjoy her company and encourage her match making: why not? She is everything an upper class man would desire in a companion--- but without a dowry, not a competitor in the Marriage Stakes.
Jason Asprey plays a penniless French aristocrat who works in the same field --arranging marriages between his titled bachelor friends and the well dowered girls they need to pay their debts and maintain their traditional status. Jean Le Fanois is handsome, witty, attentive: the liquid honey of his French accent is enough to make a susceptible American female weak at the knees. It's not hard to imagine that wealthy women, both the eligible girls and their ambitious mothers, are attracted to him in flocks-- his task is to separate out the passable ones and herd them towards a suitable groom who will show Le Fanois a proper amount of financial gratitude once the impoverished artistocrat is wed and possessed of the female's fortune. The trick of it is to find just the right degree of stupidity to match with just the right degree of vulgarity-- a union seen by society as a serious misalliance would soil Le Fanois' reputation and ruin his business. Blanche and Jean are a pair; colleagues who understand and appreciate each other. What more they are, and what "The Promise" of the title might refer to, is the tantalizing subtext of each brief scene.
Both Kiki Smith and Nikki Maritch are credited with the impeccable costuming which contributes to the perfect fit between content and context in both productions. If Wharton or her friend Henry James are your cup of tea, or if you enjoy Drawing Room tragicomedy of the Masterpiece Theatre sort--- or even if you are simply curious to see a unique brand of theatre masterfully executed-- it is well worth a pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox for this summer's offering. It may, alas, be the last "perfect Wharton" we will have the chance to see. Spring Lawn Mansion has been sold: the company will be relieved of the burden of the extensive necessary repairs to the mansion's structure, and the cash from the sale will keep the rest of the operation afloat. Shakespeare & Company is planning to build another theatre, of a suitable size and shape for intimate shows like the One Acts. But The Whartons are a subtle mixture of artifice and authenticity. Who can be the sure that The Spirit of the Gilded Age will consent to preside in a brash new space?