Autres Temps. . . by Dennis Krausnick, adapted from the 1911 short story by Edith Wharton. Directed by Catherine Taylor-Williams.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"There is no old New York left, it seems."
Diane Prusha, Corinna May, Rory Hammond; photo: David Dashiel
Transferring Edith Whartonís 1911 short story about a mother and daughter who each have their own difficulties with divorce to a 1962 setting makes a startling difference to the tale and its theatrical presentation. The moral sensibilities of their upper class communities do not easily make the transfer in time and statements like the one quoted above donít necessarily ring with the clarity of reality. For twenty years, it seems, Mrs. Lidcote has been avoided by her former friends, the result of a divorce we learn very little about in the course of the 63 minutes play. For twenty years she has been estranged from family, associates, friends. Now, in this rarefied 1962, her daughter has moved on from a wrong marriage to a very right one and Mrs. Lidcote is coming home to be with her child. The trouble is those lost twenty years.
In 1962 and in 1942 the story of divorce is quite different from the pre-echoed versions of 1911 and 1891. In the 60s and the 40s women had rights and those were easily expressed even if others didnít agree with the exercise of choices they were still doable without major censure. In Whartonís time, however, "nice" women didnít leave their husbands. "Nice" women had fewer options. The joy of Whartonís novels was that in her version of New York Society some women felt less bound by convention than others and even though "nice" society could shun those who fell from grace, the unbowed malcontents still had resources. One could leave New York and go to London, or Paris or to Lake Como in Italy. These are options that were not available to women in 1942, not during World War II. In those days women had to stand by their difficult decisions and face the music in their own backyards.
These issues aside, the company assembled by The Wharton Salon is putting talent into the process and delivering a very diverting theatrical event to the dog days of the Berkshire summer. Overlooking the oddity of mores of the times this group of fine performers and skilled technicians is risking that single level of disbelief in order to present the story in a way that may make more sense, on the emotional level, to contemporary audiences. So we must overlook the historical challenge and go with the flow.
Rory Hammond plays Leila, the daughter whose second marriage to a very good man, is safe and secure as long as her mother, her long-since disgraced mother, keeps her distance. Leila is campaigning for a position for her husband that will allow her to live close to her mother in Italy. She is doing everything she possibly can do to rectify and retrace those lost years, but the news that her mother has suddenly arrived in New York sends things into a tailspin. She inveigles a family friend, Susy Suffern, into chaperoning the returning mother until the campaign is won, but Susy cannot dissuade her old friend from moving in on the emotionally fraught daughter. Once Mrs. Lidcote realizes that her presence jeopardizes success and happiness, she withdraws but she rallies one more time only to be shot down by the one person she has counted on to stand by her.
Hammond, in only two scenes, gives us an image of youthful elegance overcoming a past she had no control over. She is strong and physical. She presents the spirit of prevarication with gusto. Her welcome, constructed from Whartonís 1911 dialogue, is strained and unusual, her terminology for her distant but emotionally overwrought mother deeply seated in that earlier period. It sounds wrong. It sounds odd, less a verbiage of a class than a time gone by. She manages it somehow, perhaps in the pacing, and we can let it go but itís there and Hammond, as good as she is in the role, cannot make less of it. Her second scene, prior to dinner, is devastating as she manages, without demanding it, to put her mother off joining the dinner party which includes many of Mrs. Lidcoteís old friends. Hammond handles all this brilliantly.
Franklin Ide, Mrs. Lidcoteís friend and suitor, played handsomely by James Goodwin Rice, is the refuge that time has allowed. Rice plays hesitancy well and until the final moments of the play never betrays the secret that he holds and only reveals when cornered by his lady friendís need and her plotting. His face is a treasure for it can register emotions that wonít be spoken for minutes to come. His romantic demeanor and his businessmanís body donít jibe easily, but this actor pulls them together into a single character and allows us to first mistrust, then like, then pity him.
Corinna May plays Susy Suffern, a reasonably thankless role. She brings us a woman uncomfortable in her situation. Susy has no business being caught in the middle between her old friend and society. Her usual place is more on the periphery of things, but for Leilaís sake she has taken up a position which doesnít allow her to offer her more insight. May lets us see the internal suffering of this woman in her face and her body and her vagrant hands. A very nice performance from this actress whom many admire as much as I do.
Diane Prusha is the ever-present Mrs. Lidcote. In her voice, and in her silences, there is a sob caught in the throat that gives her every word greater importance. She plays a woman who has lived with the fear of complications. She is troubled for someone who is joyous and hopeful and attempting, once again, to live a life she has been denied since making her move out of a painful relationship. We are not given the details of that earlier escape. We only know that it has brought about this rift between the woman and her world. Prusha always seems on the verge of reliving that experience, but at the same time is holding it back to prevent it gaining power over her. That inner torment, that anguish, gives her highest moments a release of joy that seems to almost reach beyond the parameters of the stage.
The stage itself has been lovingly set by Kate Sinclair Foster whose Queen Mary deck serves to establish the limits of Mrs. Lidcoteís world. Even as her setting alters, those borders are there to hold her back, hold her inside a limited if lovely space. Arthur Oliver has dressed her in a single outfit when a change or two would have done her some good, but perhaps this concept is less budget-based than it might appear; perhaps that limited look on the woman expresses the limitations of her world once again. His dresses for Leila are lovely and in fact all of his costumes work well for their characters. Maia Robbins-Zustís lighting is a fascinating theatrical remark of its own. She starts shipboard at night with limited illumination and with each succeeding scene adds more and more light until the final scene, dark as it becomes emotionally, is lit with the harsh, bright light of the commercial world of New York City, a world the heroine must once again abandon.
In all of this there is the fine hand of the director, Catherine Taylor-Williams, who has woven the threads of societal behavior into the playing of her cast. There are seams and they are visible, but the underlying design of her tapestry is unified and strong and those seams hold together past the present and presenting the past. That the play has any resonance is due to the work done by this director and her cast, all working to take the play in a single direction. If Krausnick would just update some of that Wharton dialogue we would not sit in wonder, now and then, at the oddness of some of the goings on.
In its third season this company is delivering a punch to the head that is both hard-hitting and dizzying. To get in a punch to the gut is its next step and for that we will have to wait for another season.
James Goodwin Rice and Prusha; photo: David Dashiel
Diane Prusha as Mrs. Lidcote; photo: David Dashiel
Autres Temps. . . plays at Edith Whartonís The Mount Stables through August 28. For information and tickets call 1-800-838-3006.