Edith Wharton was a genius. A literary lion(ess) of her time, she wrote more than 40 books, at a time when little was expected of women other than making a home. Wharton made a life that many would envy now and her human acumen is beyond compare. Princeton New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center’s most recent masterpiece is Douglas McGrath’s new adaptation of Wharton’s “Age of Innocence,” in association with Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, and under Doug Hughes’ direction, we get a glittering jewel, in a late Victorian setting, that has meaning for our times, and all times.
Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra) is about to announce his engagement to May Welland (Helen Cespedes), a desirable young woman with all the social graces that a man could ask for. Enter Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), May’s beloved cousin, who turns Newland’s world upside down.
McGrath is an engaging playwright, whose introduction of the Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), as the now-omniscient narrator, is a device that unifies this work and makes the brilliance of the book accessible to all. Gaines is a treasure and his heartfelt emotion, possessing the full force of the clarity of hindsight, renders this a very fine piece of storytelling. Gaines was the Stage Manager in George Street Playhouse’s most recent production of “Our Town” and that gravitas and animus permeates his beautiful work.
John Lee Beatty’s set is reminiscent of the Victorian conservatory, or the English Crystal Palace. Americans at this time took so much culturally from the English, including restraint. Director Hughes points out that this set is like a snow globe–so much swirling within! The only items changing place really are the gold chairs—gilded chairs for a gilded age.
Linda Cho’s costumes are beautiful and the black of Ellen’s dress, with its matte sheen and May’s white froth of curvy ruffles, accentuating her Victorianesque curves, provide visual reminders, as does Newland’s cutaway. Each is decorous on their own.
The electric connection between Newland and Ellen is played with beauty and grace by Veenstra and Boggess and is like a piece of music in itself. When Boggess sings “Beautiful Dreamer,” a Stephen Foster song that is period appropriate, and extremely intimate in this setting between two experienced, yet unmarried—to one another—people, it will make your heart flutter as it did mine. Art is in both the positive and negative spaces–what is said and what is not. McGrath and Hughes, with a dream team of tech and cast, have made spatial music and magic that you will always remember. With the masterful Gaines as our final visual, our end is our beginning and the moment feels complete.
Reserve your tickets today for a luscious Autumn Valentine! The show only runs through October 7 and you don’t want to miss it! Contact the box office today at www.McCarter.org
or via telephone at 609/258.ARTS (2787).