The Inner House in Rural Intelligence

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August 16, 2012 · by Catherine · Press

8.16.12 Rural Intelligence

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
Lenox, MA
Tickets: $35; to purchase, call 1.800.838.3006 or click here.

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