Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
This has been billed as the summer of “Summer”. Edith Wharton’s 1916 novella “Summer” has been adapted for the stage by Dennis Krausnick, a leading adaptor of Wharton’s works, and is playing now through October 17 at Shakespeare & Company’s Stables Theatre on the grounds of Wharton’s Lenox estate, The Mount. The Berkshire Opera Company and the Edith Wharton Restoration have commissioned a new opera by Stephen Paulus which will open on the stage at BCC on August 28. On that same day at 5:30 PM Krausnick and Tina Packer, Shakespeare & Company’s Artistic Director and director of their production of “Summer”, will hold a discussion of Wharton’s “Summer” and “Ethan Frome” at The Mount. Paperback editions of the book are available at a reasonable price at any local bookstore, although it may be harder to find in local libraries since it is not one of Wharton’s greater works.
Therein lies the big question. “Summer” is one of Wharton’s minor works. Why all this fuss? Why not expend all this creative energy on one of her greater novels?
But all of this does present a tremendous opportunity for area audiences to see the play, read the book (don’t worry, its short!), attend the discussion, visit The Mount, and see the opera. All of this based on a novel set in Berkshire County, written by a major American author who lived here for many years.
By the time she wrote “Summer” Wharton had left The Mount and taken up residence in France, where she was so active in relief effort during World War I that she became one of the first women to be made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. She took six weeks off from her war work to write this novel set in the Berkshires she had left behind five years earlier. Living amidst the horrors of world war, she wrote about life in the most kindly of seasons in the tiny fictional town of North Dormer, Massachusetts.
So, how does North Dormer and one summer in the life of 17 year-old Charity Royall translate to the stage under Krausnick and Packer’s guidance? Unfortunately not very well. Krausnick has been much too literal in his adaptation. The entire play is enacted by seven actors on a minimalist set.
Charity, in her adolescent struggles, keeps fleeing the confines of man-made structures for the beauty of the Berkshire summer. Her strong connection with nature is a central element of her character and the story. And yet, with two lovely outdoor stages at her disposal, Packer has decided to stage “Summer” indoors, where it is sharing the space with the ongoing production of “As You Like It” so that neither show can build anything like a permanent set. Walk out the door and all the scenery Wharton ever imagined surrounds you. I agreed with Charity – I just wanted to get OUT into the Berkshire summer.
“Summer” tells the story of Charity Royall, who was adopted as a toddler by Lawyer Royall (Wharton never gives him a first name) and his wife. Charity is the child of a criminal and an alcoholic prostitute who lived “up on the mountain” where people obey neither the laws of man or God. The Royalls give Charity a spatan but happy childhood in sleepy little North Dormer, the kind any teenager with half a brain longs to escape. As the story opens Mrs. Royall dies after a lengthy illness, and Lawyer Royall proposes marriage to his young ward, who firmly and heartlessly rejects him.
A young man named Lucius Harney, the cousin of the elderly grande dame of North Dormer, comes to town to sketch old houses for a book he is writing. He and Charity become lovers, despite the insumountable difference in their stations in life. This is a story with both a happy and an unhappy ending, as Charity learns the difference between what is necessary in life and what is pleasant.
I often debate whether reading the book on which a play or film is based before seeing it is a good idea because it does encourage one to build up opinions ahead of time, and it completely spoils any element of surprise. However, Packer has decided to reveal most of the plot in her program notes, so the element of surprise is removed for just about everyone; and Krausnick read exactly the same book that I did when preparing this adaptation, which, as I said, is perhaps even too faithful to the original.
I wonder, however, whether Packer read the book. Her casting of the leads missing many of Wharton’s intentions. I was particularly disturbed by her choice of Michael Hammond as Lawyer Royall and the interpretation of that character which they developed. Krausnick has given them Wharton’s words, but by casting the handsome and appealing Hammond Packer has erased much of the dark side of the man so strongly emphasized by Wharton. Despite the slightly incestuous over-tones to their relationship, Charity’s repeated refusals to marry Lawyer Royall seem merely petulant.
As Charity, Tori Rhoades embodies the fiery temperament of Wharton’s character, but lacks the essential animal magnetism which links Charity so strongly to the natural world. Henry David Clarke is puppy-dog cute as Lucius Harney, but he fails to show us the worldly side of the character which is necessary to explain why he and Charity are doomed never to be together.
What this production does do well, with its chorus of two actors and two actresses who play all the rest of the characters, is create the claustrophobic and hypocritical aspects of a small New England town in the days when travel and communication with the outside world was much less accessible. Jonathan Croy, Josef Hansen, Diane Prusha, and Karen Torbjornsen are fun to watch as they effortlessly transition between roles. They bring interest and color to this difficult tale.
“Summer” runs through October 17 at the Stables Theatre at Shakespeare and Company‘s home at The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox. The show runs two hours and fifteen mintues with one intermission. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information about this production and the August 28th discussion. Call the Berkshire Opera Company at 413-443-7400 for information about performances of the opera, and call the Edith Wharton Restoration, also based at The Mount, at 413-637-1899 for information about tours of that estate.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999