Wharton in Words and Spirit at The Mount in The Inner House
Tod Randolph as Edith Wharton; photo by Kevin Sprague
“I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms,” Edith Wharton wrote in her short story The Fullness of Life. She was speaking from experience. Having settled at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts—a rambling estate with ornate gardens, stables, a gatehouse, and a classical revival mansion overlooking Laurel Lake—Wharton knew from great houses. And as a successful female author navigating the conventions and prejudices of turn-of-the-century America, she knew plenty about the complex inner lives of women.
This month, thanks to The Wharton Salon, audiences can explore the many rooms of Wharton’s mind in a whole new way. The Inner House, a one-woman play adapted from Wharton’s autobiography and letters, runs at The Mount from August 15-26. The show reunites a dream team of veteran Whartonites, including producing artistic director and Wharton Salon founder Catherine Taylor-Williams, director Normi Noël , playwright Dennis Krausnick, and actress Tod Randolph, who plays Wharton herself.
“You have the mistress of the house, who you already know from visiting The Mount, talking about her life in a building that she designed,” says Taylor-Williams. That’s the kind of unique theater-going experience she had in mind when she founded the Wharton Salon four years ago. By performing Wharton’s works right on her old home, the company revives a tradition pioneered by Shakespeare & Company during its 23-year residence at The Mount.
This year’s production of The Inner House takes full advantage of the estate’s rich history. “The Mount is known for its hauntings, as many old buildings are,” says director Noël. And like many people of her time, Wharton was intrigued by spiritualism and the idea of communicating with the dead. Noël conceived of the play as an opportunity for Wharton’s spirit, wandering around the estate, to stumble upon the modern-day audience and decide to tell her story.
“Writers have to write to an imaginary audience,” says Noël. But in this play, “Edith finds the audience in her inner house and realizes as a writer that they were there all along.” The set-up reflects the deep bond many contemporary readers feel with Wharton: “We aren’t ghosts to her any more than she’s a ghost to us.”
The autobiographical nature of The Inner House makes it a fitting choice for the 150-year anniversary of Wharton’s birth. This year’s milestone has sparked renewed interest in the author’s life and works—not to mention a good dose of controversy. In February, novelist Jonathan Franzen made some unflattering remarks about Wharton’s looks (not pretty) and personality (snobbish) in The New Yorker, kicking off a debate that reverberated throughout the literary world. While everyone seems to have an opinion about Wharton these days, The Inner House lets her speak for herself.
“We’re taken on this tour by Wharton in her own words, rather than someone saying, ‘This is who we think Edith Wharton is or was,’” says Taylor-Williams. “By writing her own autobiography, we have to assume that this is what she wanted us to know about her.”
The Inner House will also play at the New York Society Library on December 2, where it will help conclude the institution’s yearlong Wharton celebration. Although her birthday festivities must draw to an end with 2012, the public appetite for all things Wharton seems unlikely to diminish.
Luckily, Noël says, Wharton’s inner life—that great house full of rooms—doesn’t have to be a mystery to modern audiences. “In the play, Dennis has her say, ‘Look idiot, if you just knew which room to look in and what door handle to turn, there you would find wonders and treasures.’” The Wharton Salon will keep unlocking those doors for years to come. — Sarah Todd
The Wharton Salon presents The Inner House at The Mount
August 15 – 26
2 Plunkett Street
Tickets: $35; to purchase, call 1.800.838.3006 or click here.
The leisure-class clash in Autres Temps, the Wharton Salon’s third annual production at the Mount, has been given an effectively timely update. First published in Century magazine exactly 100 years ago this August, Edith Wharton’s short story “Other Times, Other Manners” has been set by Wharton Salon director Catherine Taylor-Williams in 1962, at the cusp of that pivitol Mad Men era. Adapted for stage by Shakespeare & Company stalwart Dennis Krausnick, this 62-minute one-act fills the intimate Stables Auditorium on the grounds of the Mount, much as Shakespeare & Company’s Wharton Series did in the Mount’s salon overlooking the terrace shrubbery two decades ago.
Autres Temps focuses on shunned divorcee Mrs. Lidcote (the perfectly cast Diane Prusha) who returns hurriedly to New York society and their summer Berkshire playland after a two-decade European exile to be with her daughter, Leila (an icy Rory Hammond), in her hour of need after her own divorce. Only society doesn’t shun divorcees any longer, Mrs. Lidcote discovers, and Leila’s hour of need hinges not on her own divorce and remarriage, but on her mother’s.
Taylor-Williams keeps her five-actor cast focused and subtle with Pinteresque poise and pace, andAutres Temps’ settings shift with an economy of effort and stagecraft that serves Taylor-Williams well. From the deck of the ocean liner Queen Mary (created by two white wooden folding chairs and David Noel Edwards’ smart sound design), Mrs. Lidcote sips champagne with “wants-to-be-more-than-just-good-friend” Franklin Ide (a smooth James Goodwin Rice, co-founder of Albany’s own Capital Repertory Theatre and, like the others in the cast, a Shakespeare & Company alumnus). Ide tries to convince her that “Lenox is far enough from New York that the ritual (shunning) may not be known there,” which drew knowing chuckles from the audience.
The second scene slips to the smallish, second-floor sitting room in the Berkshire estate of Leila and her new husband Wilbur, where Mrs. Lidcote arranges red roses in a crystal vase, marveling that “everything’s changed . . . there’s no ‘Old New York’ left . . . every woman has the right to happiness,” while waiting for her daughter to greet her. In the third scene, marked by a new arrangment of white lilies, family confidant and serial status updater Susy Suffern (the peerless Corinna May) breathlessly tells the waiting Mrs. Lidcote “You won’t know Leila. She’s had her pearls reset.” By the time Leila and her pearls make their own appearance with the brash greeting, “You queer wild mother. I know how you hate people,” in the fourth scene, the shadows of doubt across Mrs. Lidcote’s face are as long as those cast by the late afternoon sun through the French doors. “Leila will never forgive herself if you make an effort you’re not up to,” Susy sighs as she and Leila come and go into the sitting room in an effort to keep Mrs. Lidcote out of sight while an important dinner party occurs on the main floor below.
With Franklin Ide’s return in the fifth and final scene, Mrs. Lidcote’s dilemma has played out: “The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known; it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy,” she says to him as she prepares her steamer trunks for departure the following day. When he slips silently from the room while her back is turned, rather than go out and make a social visit with her, Mrs. Lidcote sits and stares into the future as a single harsh white light washes all color from her face at the play’s end.
Past adaptations of Wharton’s stories usually seemed little more than dusty costumed museum pieces, “tea cuplets” with a pretentious sensibility. But Taylor-Williams’ 1962 update lends Autres Temps a timelier confine, illuminating characters and theme more than 1911 passementeries, opera gloves, and lorgnettes would. This is a case where the director’s concept brings into sharper focus the play’s theme rather than obscures it.
Staging Edith Wharton’s ‘Autres Temps’ in her Berkshires Home
By Simi Horwitz
AUGUST 11, 2011
Rehearsing Edith Wharton’s “Autres Temps” in her 19th-century Massachusetts drawing room takes site-specific theater to a whole new level. The room offers ornate ceilings, a marble fireplace, and murals depicting scenes from Greek mythology, and beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, a terrace overlooks formal Italianate gardens, Laurel Lake, and the rolling hills of the Berkshires. Wharton’s mansion, the Mount, designed to celebrate symmetry, order, and scale, serves as a perfect backdrop for a story written 100 years ago about the stigma of divorce in a seemingly harmonious society that’s just beginning to feel the rumblings of change—though in this version, directed by Catherine Taylor-Williams, the scene has been updated to 1962.”I have always said Mrs. Wharton was ahead of her time,” says Taylor-Williams, producing artistic director of the Wharton Salon, now launching its third season. “When I was preparing to do the play, I was also reading two books: ‘When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present’ by Gail Collins and ‘A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s’ by Stephanie Coontz. There seemed to be something similar between Mrs. Lidcote in Wharton’s 1911 story and the women I was reading about in the other two books about the early 1960s. My audience was alive in 1962, obviously not in 1911. So I decided it would open an interesting dialogue by setting the play in 1962, on the cusp of great change for Americans, and American women in particular. And I thought it would stretch us all: the actors, the designers, the audience, and myself as a director.”
The Wharton Salon is Taylor-Williams’ baby and in many ways represents a homecoming. A former actor with the Lenox, Mass.–based Shakespeare & Company, she left the troupe in 2007 to take a graduate fellowship in arts management at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., followed by a stint in the development department at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. She felt the time had come to move on, cultivate new skills that would boost her income, and give herself the means necessary to forge a theater company should she decide to do so.
As Taylor-Williams tells it, she was haunted by the actors she had performed with at Shakespeare & Company, its bucolic surroundings, and the Mount, where Shakespeare & Company resided for more than 20 years before being forced out in the wake of a convoluted controversy and much ill will on all sides. But the Wharton Salon is a totally separate entity, and the board of directors has largely changed. The formerly decaying and dilapidated house has been restored, and the administrators are more than open to producing Wharton’s stories in the house or in the stable on the premises.
“We are delighted to be partnering with the Wharton Salon again this year, as their performances add another very important way for people to experience the power of Wharton’s writings,” says Susan Wissler, the Mount’s executive director. ” ‘Autres Temps’ is arguably one of Wharton’s finest pieces.”
For Taylor-Williams, staging Wharton represents the perfect marriage between wonderfully complex and nuanced roles for women of “a certain age” and the gifted, mature actors she has recruited for “Autres Temps” and her two previous productions, “Summer” and “Xingu.” Her current cast includes mother and daughter Diane Prusha and Rory Hammond (playing a mother and daughter), Corinna May, and James Goodwin Rice. All are, or have been, affiliated with Shakespeare & Company and have performed in a roster of Wharton dramatizations written by Shakespeare & Company founder Dennis Krausnick. “Autres Temps” is also adapted by Krausnick.
To date, the Wharton Salon has enjoyed sold-out runs with enthusiastic audiences who are eager to discuss the plays they’ve seen, other stories they’ve read and recommend, and their personal connection to Wharton’s work, Taylor-Williams reports. Much of Wharton’s writing explores the lives of conflicted upper-class women who are torn between society’s restraints and their own convention-defying impulses. Wharton’s best-known novels are “The House of Mirth,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “Ethan Frome.”
The actors are excited by Wharton as well. May, who has more than a dozen Wharton dramatizations to her credit, is continually drawn to the author’s depth and “a kind of mysterious inner life that she did not express,” says the actor. “All of her heroines are complicated and full of paradox. There is nothing straightforward about any of them. There is so much subtext. That makes for the best drama.”
Prusha, a 20-year Wharton actor, also talks about “the unspoken beneath the surface.” As an actor, the pleasure and challenge are the layer upon layer of emotion that need to be subtly hinted at, she says. Rice notes that a male actor faces the same daunting tasks in tackling Wharton’s men. “A larger challenge is the little aspects of language and syntax that reflect the time in which it was written,” he adds. “It’s wordy to a contemporary ear, though Dennis has simplified the language. But I enjoy solving the problem of the language and interpreting it. Why one word as opposed to another? Acting is sleuthing.”
As real-life mother and daughter, Prusha and Hammond bring an added dimension to the performance. They’ve performed together in the past and share a good personal and creative relationship. “Working with my mom is fun, though we’ve had artistic differences,” Hammond says, laughing. “Neither of us can get away with anything if it’s false. We know each other very well and are honest with each other. We can’t phone in a performance.”
Still, the material’s archaic view of ostracized divorced women would seem problematic for modern actors, despite Taylor-Williams’ ’60s updating. “I’m fascinated by setting it in ’62,” says Rice. “I was a junior in high school and very much aware of social norms and the double standard for men and women, girls and boys. Divorce was still viewed as shocking, and kids whose parents were divorced were seen as different.”
May insists that the attitudes in the story are not removed from her experience either. As a young woman, she watched her mother’s misery as a divorcée. “I can put myself in 1911 or 1962 because of my mother,” she says. “Divorce is a huge deal, even though the culture pretends it’s not. We know it’s very damaging to children, and there’s still the issue of who gets invited out with friends after a divorce. Edith Wharton’s culture is in many ways like contemporary Hollywood. When you’re married to the right person, you’re in. When you’re not married to that person, you’re out. The two worlds share a great deal in terms of status and hierarchy. Exclusion and banishment from the group exists.”
Informed by the Space
No one has any doubt that the extraordinary space, overflowing with the author’s presence, informs the acting. “I feel like I’m in that world, literally,” says Rice. “This is the kind of country home these characters would visit or occupy. This is a little bit like acting in a film’s locale. The site-specific surroundings inform the content and make the connection that much easier.”
May points out that humans, like animals, instinctively and biologically respond to their environments. The relationship with one’s space is intuitive. “In a theater, a set designer creates part of the world and the actor has to create the rest,” she notes. “But if you’re in the actual room, talking about looking out at Laurel Lake and actually looking out at Laurel Lake, the room then becomes the greatest scene partner. When we’re performing in the stable, the relationship is a little different. We have to work a little harder, but it’s still Edith’s place.” The authenticity of the scene also makes the suspension of disbelief that much easier for the audience, the actors say.
May lived at the Mount in the fall of 1989 while completing a work-study program with Shakespeare & Company. Prusha and Hammond say their connection to the house is far more personal. When the house was owned and run by Shakespeare & Company, Prusha and her then-husband, Michael Hammond, lived on the premises as members of the theater commune for 10 years. “I came here when I was 23,” she says. “This is part of my growing-up process. My daughter was conceived here. I feel I’m almost channeling Edith: to work in her place, a place where she was really happy. The Mount was her pride and joy. She created it and wrote amazing things here. To keep her words alive in this place gives it such resonance, especially for me as a woman.”
“It was my home; it was Edith Wharton’s home,” adds Hammond. “Working in this environment must inform the acting on levels that I’m not even aware of.”
New Roles, New Plans
Taylor-Williams’ dream production is a dramatization of the novel “The Custom of the Country,” the adventures of a savagely ambitious and much married social climber, Undine Spragg. “I can’t think of another female character in literature like Undine Spragg,” says Taylor-Williams. “What ambition! What a fun role for an actress! And what a challenge for a producer and director! To do it, we would be increasing cast size from our current maximum of seven or eight actors to more like 10 or maybe even 15. I can’t begin to imagine how many costumes and set locations we’d need, since the story takes place on two continents. It would probably run about three hours with edits and require at least six weeks of rehearsals to cover the material. I also think a character like Undine, whose story spans from her 20s into her late 40s or early 50s, would be better played by more than one actress. Ideally, we would do it in three parts and run each part during the week and the cycle on the weekend. It’s a Herculean task. It would be enormous fun, though, and I know the audience would love it.”
Taylor-Williams also talks about branching out to include dramatizations of stories written by Wharton’s contemporaries or playwrights from that time: “Edith Wharton was a New Yorker. How lovely it would be to find a location in New York City to adapt a New York story. There’s a lot of exciting things to work towards.”
By Milton Bass, Special to Berkshires Week of Berkshire Eagle
Thursday July 14, 2011
While the town of Lenox is churning itself into incomprehensibility over its impeccableness, two young Canadian women have described the soul of Berkshire County perfectly.
Both Catherine Taylor-Williams and Kristen van Ginhoven have their own theaters, the first The Wharton Salon in Lenox and the second the WAM Theatre in Pittsfield.
What makes them want to live and work in Berkshire County is what they described as “the culture” of the area. They are not talking so much about the regional theaters, the museums and the music and dance centers. Their emphasis is on the people who live here on both a year-round and seasonal basis. Some of them are borners, but a large portion migrated here strictly because of the atmosphere. Their souls could sense something that increased their appetites, that satisfied their hungers, that stretched their minds and comforted their bodies. They make culture a way of life as well as a word.
Taylor-Williams had trained as an actress in Canada and had toured the country forward and back, up and down, until, as she puts it, “I had run out of road. I was 29 years old and needed new places, new experiences.”
A course taken with Dennis Krausnick, director of training at Shakespeare & Company, opened a new road for Taylor-Williams, and also a new husband, Robert Serrell, a fellow actor. After seven years as an actor-manager at Shakespeare, Taylor-Williams left the company for other pursuits.
One thing she has pursued is restoring theater at The Mount, the former home of writer Edith Wharton. Shakespeare & Company had been doing a series of plays at The Mount, mostly works that Dennis Krausnick had adapted from Wharton novels. The head of The Mount, Susan Wissler, wanted to continue the theater work, and Taylor-Williams wanted a theater company, so she raised her own funds in 2008 and has put on plays the last three years.
By coincidence, Kristin van Ginhoven, also at the age of 29, found herself in limbo while living in Toronto. She had started her career as an actress but lost her nerve and got a teaching degree at Queen’s University which resulted in a four-year teaching stint in Belgium.
“I loved teaching at the college level,” she said, “but I wanted to be a director.”
Then she fell in love with a Britisher named Nick Webb who teaches computer science at Union College, and after their marriage they moved to the Berkshires. Her present career was inspired by reading a book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity,” by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.
“It was a call to action for women and girls to take action over their own careers,” said van Ginhoven, “and the book made it seem possible to me. Leigh Strimbeck and I formed WAM (Women’s Action Movement) in 2009 to benefit women.”
To raise money, van Ginhoven wrote 100 letters to family and friends, and enough of them contributed to stage the first production in 2010. Theater management chose not to pick a permanent theater site but to do productions in rented spaces that fulfill their audience requirements, which range from 50 to 99 patrons. Three plays have been produced, and they plan a fourth for November of this year.
“We Canadians,” said Ginhoven, with a glance at Taylor-Williams, “learn the rules, but we are both stubborn women who want to live and work in the Berkshires and hire local people and create a ‘Berkshire atmosphere.’”
“We have no theater building plans, either,” said Taylor-Williams. “Right now I just want a Wharton house, a relationship to Wharton’s own home. We may form a board in the next year, but what we are most interested in right now is creating an artistic legacy that will benefit both us and the Mount.”
The new work, “Autre Temps…” has been adapted by Dennis Krausnick from a Wharton short story and deals with “divorce, 1962, American-style.”
As you can see from the picture, both women are as good looking as they are determined, and you can be sure that the determination will only grow.
Edith Wharton returns to the stage at the Mount next week, and the production is a homecoming of sorts for the actors and director, too.
A new theater group called the Wharton Salon is bringing an adaptation of Wharton’s story “Xingu’’ to the writer’s landmark home in Lenox. The one-act comedy will be performed Aug. 20-23 in Wharton’s drawing room, “which is appropriate, since it actually takes place in a drawing room,’’ says Susan Wissler, executive director of the Mount.
The play centers around a society women’s lunch club hosting a popular author for a discussion of her latest novel. When conversation teeters toward social disaster, the club’s most unpredictable member introduces a compelling new topic, Xingu, although no one quite knows what that is.
Behind the scenes, the production offers a happy return for director/producer Catherine Taylor-Williams and most of the actors, who are current or former members of Shakespeare & Company. The Mount was home to Shakespeare & Company for more than 20 years, before an acrimonious split that became final in 2001. Read More…