Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Life & Style

Age of Innocence Adapts Delightfully to Hartford Stage


Helen Cespedes (front) as May Welland and Sara Norton (back), New York socialite in Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage. 

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

Helen Cespedes (front) as May Welland and Sara Norton (back), New York socialite in Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage. Photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The choices one makes between following one’s heart and following one’s conscience, between doing what feels good and doing what feels right, between following one’s dreams and following the dictates of one’s family, upbringing, social norms, are enduring, classic themes in Edith Wharton’s fiction, particularly poignant in her 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence.

And they continue to speak to audiences almost a century later in Douglas McGrath’s exquisite new adaptation of Wharton’s well-loved work, making its world premiere at Hartford Stage. McGrath wrote the book for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and has adapted/directed numerous movies, including Jane Austen’s Emma and Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby.

For starters, the production, impeccably directed by Doug Hughes, is an absolute treat for the eyes and ears—the stunning set by John Lee Beatty, illuminated by Ben Stanton’s lavish lighting and Linda Cho’s opulent 1870s-correct costumes coupled with Charles LaPointe’s extravagant wig and hair designs—all exclaiming the excesses of wealth, quietly moderated by the perfectly measured musical score, written by Mark Bennett and performed on stage by pianist Yan Li.

There is plenty of substance in addition to window dressing. The actors consistently weave an absorbing and interesting tale, true to Wharton’s novel that’s part biting social satire, part pure romantic love story.

The play begins with the narrator, referred to as “The Old Gentleman,” (Boyd Gaines), commenting on an audience in their box seats at the opera, noting that “wealthy people go to the opera not to watch the opera but each other, gossiping about each other.”

He is also the older version of Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), who is in a love triangle of sorts with May Welland (Helen Cespedes), the woman he is engaged to marry, and Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), who has recently returned to New York from Europe and is the hot topic of a scandalous affair.

Gaines, a four-time Tony Award-winning actor, is charming in the role and adds an enlightening perspective to the story as he stands in the background, looking back on his life and the choices he’s made.

Veenstra seems stiff at the start, but as the play progresses, warms up to his role as the conflicted young gentleman lawyer, caught between his powerful attraction to Ellen and his sense of duty and obligation to May.

But although all the characters stay in the same costumes throughout—May in frilly, virginal white, and Ellen in sensual, bodice-fitted black, their roles are far from black-and-white. Cespedes beautifully draws us into the beautiful May’s seeming innocence and comfort in the safety of the status quo, until we realize she is far from innocent and knows exactly what she must do to “keep her man.” Boggess also creates an intriguing character—an intelligent woman who has made some questionable choices, but has a strong code of ethics and loyalty, making her relationship with her beloved cousin, May, all the more fascinating.

McGrath has added a song to the show, as it was popular at the time for people to play and sing in their parlors. Newland uses the song, “Beautiful Dreamer” to test both women’s openness and imagination. While Ellen easily joins him in lovely harmony, May resists, affirming for Newland that for her, “Marriage wasn’t an open window to new experiences but a wall to protect her.” Although later, as the Old Gentleman, Gaines sadly laments, “How long did I try to make you someone you weren’t?”

Another notable performance is Darrie Lawrence as Mrs. Mansion Mingott, the awesome grandmotherly matriarch of the family, doing everything in her power to keep the established rules of civility from collapsing around her.

The Age of Innocence is a superb production that resonates on many levels and raises many questions. But at its core it’s quite simply about the cost of freedom and the cost of playing it safe.

Performances of The Age of Innocence continue at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, downtown Hartford through Sunday, May 6. Running time is one hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and times, visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.

Amy J. Barry has been writing about Connecticut professional theater for more than 25 years. She is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. (ctcritics.org).

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