Mary and Edith: Stories by Women a Century Apartby Mary Mott, Edith Wharton and Eric Hill: Roman Fever, directed by Keira Naughton; From Where I Sit, directed by Robert Moss.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Kate Maguire and Kim Taylor; Photo: Abby LePage
Mary Mott; photo: Abby LePage
"Nothing will challenge you more than moving to Idaho."
I am not easily disturbed. However the concept of women of ideas providing fodder for the stage from the perspective of a hundred years of history intrigued me greatly until I realized that the separation in conceptual time in this production is really only seventy-nine years, not enough to make a real world of difference. Women had the vote and were defiantly independent in the late 1920s and early 1930s when this story was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning Wharton. Women were in the work-force and the depression was changing everything as would the coming world war which was already in heavy start-up when Wharton published this piece.
Similarly women today, in the era of Mary Mott, have the opportunity to live rich and rewarding lives. Today’s system of life includes women indulging in every opportunity to move forward, be whoever and whatever they care to be. Mott and the two women in the Wharton story have much in common. So what is my problem here? Simply that I anticipated a chance to learn of the differences in these women’s lives and there isn’t much difference. Perhaps Mott’s tendency to lose her men, lose her self-composure and lose in many of the battles of life have left her closer to the women of Wharton’s earlier writings...moving forward, being whoever and whatever she chooses to be. I’m disturbed that the good folks at the Berkshire Theatre Group don’t seem to have realized how little that is different is being presented on their stage.
I am also disturbed that for the three women in Eric Hill’s adaptation of the Wharton story (and adaptation is an awkward description for a dialogue that has its narrative removed and handed over to a narrator to narrate) the best actress of the bunch is not acknowledged in any of the press releases and that no photograph of her in the production was made available to the press. Tara Franklin in her measured, metered manner does more justice to the story, and to the character of the story, than either of the other actresses in this short play that opens the presentation. Franklin, in elegant black, discloses with her voice, her body and her eyes what we need to understand about Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley. She may be removed from their tale by nearly eighty years, but in Wharton’s words and judgements she is what the story is about: the truth and strength of a subsequent generation of young women for whom the potential embarrassment in disclosure of their personal history doesn’t matter a bit.
Kim Taylor plays Mrs. Ansley, a woman whose lifelong friendship with the woman who has betrayed her friendship still holds the ace of spades and plays it when she needs to do so. Kate Maguire plays Mrs. Slade whose smug, self-asserted superiority gives her upper-hand until that moment when she shows her cards and comes up wanting. Maguire is best in her physical reactions to what is happening around her. She reveals much in her attitudes but delivers her lines in a somewhat far-flung manner suggesting a lady of the 19th century rather than one of the early middle 20th century. Taylor is a much lower key performer, keeping things small and close and hidden deep within her mind. One thing felt certain almost from the beginning of the play and that was though they are presented as adult women, with young adult daughters, who have been friends from childhood these two seemed remote and distant from one another from the outset. They never touch, they rarely share, they keep a hard-felt distance between them. As a result there was little surprise, nor shock, at the ultimate revelations.
Keira Naughton, who directed this piece, has somewhat cheated Wharton and definitely cheated her audience in not presenting the proper picture of a perfect friendship hiding deadly secrets. Revelations that should change both women only get polite laughs from the audience. No matter how Spartan the dialogue the director should have given us the Wharton waiver of all indiscretion to provide us and her actors with the means to find what truths do to certainties. That is really what the play is all about.
Mary Mott’s one-woman auto-biography has enough humor and enough pathos to fill a theater twice the size of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn in Stockbridge. Though reportedly a hard ticket to come by, there were 42 unused seats that I counted at the top of this second act on a Saturday night. It’s a pity, too, because Mott gives the word "quirky" a whole new deserved place in the canon of theater language. Directed by the talented Robert Moss on a stage littered with the detritus and slogans of a lifetime she performs her own history in her own words in her own special way. I know there were details I missed whenever I paused to ponder something I had just heard, so I can’t tell you how many times she was married (three, I think) or how many places she has lived (a dozen, maybe more), but I can tell you that her observations are sound and silly, that her prop-ignored place is inviting, that her words are even more telling as personal observation than Edith Wharton’s words have ever been.
I went to see the Wharton but left the theater applauding the Mott. That was also a bit disturbing but when it comes to the theater how much more a disturbed experience could I have had. Carl Sprague’s wonderful sets provided all the women settings that let them shine. Greg Solomon’s lighting gave pleasure to the experience. Olivera Gajic’s 1930's gowns felt more like 1912 and confused the senses when the narration and/or dialogue made reference to 1930s flappers (and flappers were really women of the mid to late 1920s actually so it looks as though everyone was wrong).
All in all this is a curiosity at best with some very good work in evidence on the small Unicorn stage. It’s not an evening that I will remember in a few months, that’s for certain. Although as a diversion in the autumn there are worse things we could do. And that’s from only sixty-seven years of experience and a point of view that is singular and not plural - others may see this differently.
Mary and Edith plays on the Larry Vaber Stage at the Unicorn Theatre on the campus of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, a part of the Berkshire Theatre Group, located at 6 East Street in Stockbridge, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.