by Gail M. Burns, July, 2005.

This gentle and perfect afternoon of theatre puts me in mind of a modest engagement ring: two perfect twinkling diamond chips set in a soft setting of warm yellow gold. Not big and flashy but breathtakingly beautiful to those who take the time to look closely. Attending Shakespeare & Company’s 2005 edition of the Wharton One-Acts will give you a new treasured gem to add to your collection of theatre memories.

Frankly, I knew walking in to the theatre that, unless a typhoon were to strike or the theatre be invaded by killer bees, this was bound to be fun. Edith Wharton was a brilliant writer. Dennis Krausnick adapts her beautifully for the stage. Eleanor Holdridge has proven herself a fine director, especially last season when she gave us the dynamic As You Like It and the highly entertaining Lettice and Lovage. And Jason Asprey and Corinna May are delightful performers. There was very little possibility for complete failure and every hope for grand success.

This year Krausnick has adapted two deceptively simple short stories by Edith Wharton: The Mission of Jane (1902) and Les Metteurs en Scene (1908). The latter, here retitled The Promise, is the only short story Wharton wrote in French. A literal translation of the title would be The Stage Managers or The Directors. I found a nice English translation of the story by Becky Nolan in the first volume of The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton edited by R.W.B. Lewis (1968). And while you have a good volume of Wharton’s short stories in hand, why not read a few more? There is never a bad time to read Wharton, in the Berkshires or elsewhere!

In her director’s notes in the program Holdridge notes that, “In both stories Wharton illustrates with humor, wit, and pathos how the pursuit of social position can be antithetical to human relationships; how unspoken truths can have disastrous results, and how spoken ones can lead to joy.” The great fun is in the discovery of Wharton’s intent as each story unfolds, so I will do my best to give you the flavor of each tale without giving away the surprises.

In The Mission of Jane we watch Alice and Julian Lethbury, upper middle class and middle aged New Yorkers, as they cope with the changes wrought in their lives when the adopt and raise a child named Jane, who, in Krausnick’s adaptation, remains unseen. In the short story Wharton tells the tale in the third person, describing Alice, Julian, and Jane for us. Krausnick has illuminated the characters Wharton has created, sometimes through sheer imagination and sometimes by artfully translating her narrative into believable (and very funny) dialogue. Alice spouts aphorisms while Julian watches incredulously as he morphs over the years from being master of the house to “Jane’s father.”

In The Promise Blanche Lambert and Jean Le Fanois, two penniless hangers-on, forge their way in European high society by making themselves indispensable to wealthy Americans who they introduce and marry off into aristocratic circles (hence the original French title). This is the only way they have to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed, but they both realize that time is running out. As they approach middle-age each must make provisions to marry well themselves, even though their hearts clearly belong to each other. As we meet them they are in Paris, embarking on making suitable arrangements for a sweet but lackluster American girl named Catherine Smithers, who has invaded the continent with her large and loud mother in search of a title to go with her riches. In the end both Blanche and Jean are provided for, but at a terrible cost.

Asprey and May have both spent more than ten years working with Shakespeare & Company. They are handsome people and gifted actors. Kiki Smith has designed gorgeous Gilded Age costumes for each that make them look the very picture of perfection. Set all this in the lovely Spring Lawn mansion drawing room and you are quickly transported back nine decades or so to Wharton’s world.

The fun of watching May and Asprey at work is that they each get to play two very different characters. May’s Alice Lethbury is lovely and so dim of wit that it is a surprise that it takes Jane ten whole years to outstrip her mother intellectually, while her Blanche is obviously the most beautiful, intelligent and charming woman in the room, and rendered absolutely worthless by her lack of a dowry.

Asprey’s Julian is delightful. Even when men have the usual nine months to prepare for impending fatherhood they often have a hard time coping with the reality. Julian, who has the idea sprung on him over dinner one night and brings Jane back to the nursery the next, spends all his days from then until her wedding day in a state of shock and disbelief. In contrast his Jean is weary and worldly and very, very continental. He can kiss my hand any time!

Asprey gets to use two different accents – British for Julian Lethbury and French for Jean Le Fanois. While I enjoy hearing Asprey’s elocutionary gymnastics year after year (you never know what accent he’ll be sporting next) I didn’t really understand why Julian needed to be a Brit. And for the first few minutes I was terrified that Asprey’s French accent was going to tip over into Monty Python territory, but he pulled it back just in time. The real trick is to keep the accent thick enough to be believable and still be understandable, and he manages both.

Shakespeare & Company times the afternoon’s entertainment at an hour and thirty-five minutes, including one intermission, during which you get free tea and cookies in the adjacent dining room and outside on the stone terrace, overlooking a beautiful Lenox Mountain vista. Frankly, whether you’ve lived in the Berkshires all your life or are just visiting for the weekend, I can’t think of any better way to spend a day in Lenox than with a morning at The Mount and an afternoon of the Wharton One-Acts.

The Wharton One-Acts: The Promise & The Mission of Jane run in repertory through September 4 at the Spring Lawn Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs under two hours and is suitable for ages 8 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.

P.S. On July 13, 2005 the sale of the Spring Lawn mansion was announced. The 2005 season will be your last chance to see performances in this charming space – and to see the space itself since its future will see it turned into luxury condominiums most of us can’t afford. Do go!

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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