Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2002.
Dennis Krausnick, who has adapted two dozen of Edith Wharton’s prose works for the stage, has labored mightily and transformed her 1902 novel The Valley of Decision into two and a half hours of densely philosophical musings that may or may not be a play. A cast of seven strong actors flex every theatrical muscle in their bodies in an attempt to breath life into the wooden characters and ponderous plot. Attending the performance reminded me of the times we were marched to the theatre as a “school outing” and required to watch a show because it would “illuminate” some historical event or personage for us.
Just as I used to dread the obligatory quiz the following day, I wrestled with the writing of this review. My mind was filled with the kind of questions that caused my high school teachers to write exasperated notes on my papers: Is the purpose of theatre to entertain or to educate? Should you have to “do homework” in order to understand a play, or should everything you need to know about plot and character be contained within the performance? Are there works of prose that cannot or should not be adapted for the stage? Many very great writers, including Shakespeare and Wharton, wrote some really dreadful stuff along with their masterpieces. Outside of academic circles, should the general public really be asked to invest time and money attending performances of their lesser works? (I can just feel those exasperated e-mails winging my way as I type!)
Krausnick and director Rebecca Holderness obviously exasperated themselves pondering many of the same questions. Krausnick can be heard rationalizing his decision to do the adaptation in this quotation for a May 24 Berkshire Eagle interview: “When I read the book for the first time, I wondered if I could do this. The plot isn’t very good, the characters are flat, but the ideas are so exciting and chock full…I think that if you really home to each person’s point of view and what they want to bring about, then you have the conflict and tension you need for a play.”
That Krausnick succeeded in finding a way to adapt Wharton’s 700-page debut novel about social upheaval in 18th century Italy at all is a tribute to his skill as a writer. He has chosen to dramatize just the last third of the book, which focuses on the love affair between Odo Valsecca, ruler of the fictional duchy of Pianura, and Fulvia Vivaldi, the daughter of a philosopher who was one of Odo’s teachers. It is really their mutual passion for her father’s work that binds Odo and Fulvia together. Unable to marry because of class differences and his political obligation to marry the widow of his predecessor before she is courted by Austrian powers in an attempt to take over his lands, Fulvia becomes Odo’s mistress and they set to the task of using Odo’s inherited power and wealth to effect social change. Inspired by the revolutions in America and France, the couple strive to craft a constitution for the duchy and to dissolve the feudal system still entrenched in Italian society. This brings them in direct conflict with the church, the aristocracy, and even the peasantry they are trying to free.
Krausnick has taken the ideas that he found so exciting in Wharton’s book and transformed them into seven characters, each of whom is more an embodiment of his or her philosophy than a living, breathing human being. “…my job [as director] is to create clarity of thought, establish the relationship between idea and feeling,” Holderness is quoted as saying. There are moments when she and her cast succeed, and for a brief moment you laugh or cry or care, but mostly as an audience member, your role is that of attentive pupil, listening dutifully to each actor in turn state the case for his or her character. These people are so busy wrestling with political ideals that they barely have time to relate to one another.
As Fulvia, Elizabeth Aspenleider succeeds in bringing passion and humanity to her role, where Ethan Flower flounders more as Odo, although he brings the character’s naïveté strongly to the fore. Michael Burnet is all fire as the hunchback commoner Carlo da Gamba. I found his performance the most disturbing to me emotionally and intellectually.
Andrew Borthwick-Leslie as Count Vittorio Alfieri and Catherine Taylor-Williams as the Duchess Maria Clementina, are blessed with the comic relief. And somehow this made their characters more real to me, I suppose because I find a melancholy note of comedy in even the most serious of human endeavors. Krausnick has created in the Duchess a truly three-dimensional woman – simultaneously practical and frivolous, caring and insenstitive, realistic and impecunious. Taylor-Williams brings her vividly to life. I found myself rooting for her more than for our hero and heroine and I wanted to know what became of her after Fulvia and Odo’s story ended.
Lon Troland Bull as Father Orazio De Crucis and Mel Cobb as Count Lelio Trescorre just felt like dead white males out of the pages of a dull history textbook to me. Since they interested me the least, I was gripped with the conviction that what they were saying was probably the most important stuff for me to “learn,” and would form the basis for the extra credit question on the quiz tomorrow.
If you are planning to go and see Valley of Decision, and if you are a scholar of Wharton or of the Revolutionary period it is probably worth your while, I would recommend reading Jeffrey Borak’s preview article in the Eagle, previously alluded to, the press release issued by Shakespeare & Company which I have posted here, and the program notes. I am not sure that I approve of shows that require you to do homework in order to fully understand and enjoy them, but this is one where your investment will definitely be enhanced by doing a little extra-curricular study.
The Shakespeare and Company production of the The Valley of Decision will be performed in repertory through September 1 at the Spring Lawn Theatre on Kemble Street (Rt. 7A) in Lenox. The show runs two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. There is a gun shot during the performance. Children under 12 will find this show hard to understand. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002