|From left: Diane Prusha, Corinna May, and Rory Hammond in “Autres Temps . . . ’’ presented by the Wharton Salon in Lenox. (David Dashiell)|
Wharton Salon travels smoothly through time
Boldly brings ‘Autres Temps . . . ’ into the ’60s
LENOX - Though she did dabble (secretly) in a bit of genteel porn, Edith Wharton wrote no plays that we know of. Perhaps in her exalted social circle, it simply wasn’t done. Neither was divorce in her day - at least, not without a lot of scandal, gossip, and shunning attached. Wharton’s own recent divorce from her mentally unstable, if impeccably pedigreed husband of nearly three decades no doubt influenced the short story “Autres Temps, Autres Moeurs’’ (“Other Times, Other Customs’’), published by Century Magazine in 1911.
Dennis Krausnick adapted the work - written so vividly and succinctly, it reads like a screenplay - decades ago, while in residence at The Mount (Wharton’s grand country estate) as a member of Shakespeare & Company. For her current revival, co-producer and director Catherine Taylor-Williams (herself a former S & Co. member) made the bold decision to transplant the action to 1962, on the eve of feminism’s second wave. The half-century leap works out surprisingly well. In fact, with some minor tweaking (e.g., Avedon subbing for Sargent as society portraitist), the transition goes shockingly smoothly.
The same, alas, cannot be said for the laborious scene changes required by Kate Sinclair Foster’s overfussy set. The play, performed in Wharton’s converted stable, runs only an hour. If Foster were willing to trust in the audience’s imaginative powers and suggest more with less, it would fly by in 45 minutes.
And we would do well to spend the bulk of that time among Wharton’s fascinating characters. Having long since adjusted herself to exile in Europe in the wake of her own divorce (instigated, Wharton suggests ever so subtly, by an affair that subsequently fizzled under pressure), Mrs. Lidcote (Diane Prusha) is headed home, on an ocean liner, to comfort her adult daughter Leila - played by Prusha’s real-life offspring Rory Hammond - through what Mrs. Lidcote presumes will be a similarly traumatic transition.
But times have changed, and mores along with them. Mrs. Lidcote is shocked - as she confides to a shipboard acquaintance, Franklin Ide (James Goodwin Rice) - to overhear young women of her daughter’s generation discussing breakups as casually as they might a change in the weather. She recalls them joking that one husband learned of an impending divorce when he noticed his wife wearing a new engagement ring.
Rice is the sticky wicket in this generally polished company. Hammy from the start, he’s also hard to read: Is Ide merely Mrs. Lidcote’s devoted confidant, or something more? We find out soon enough, when Rice starts slavering like a lovesick puppy. Employing less than flattering physical descriptions, Wharton did intend Ide to be more soul mate than dreamboat. However, Rice’s Ide is neither: He appears just craven and weird.
Corinna May shines as Mrs. Lidcote’s cousin Susy Suffern, a schmoozy emissary sent by Leila to try to delay Mrs. Lidcote’s arrival at Leila’s latest manse (both she and her ex-husband instantly remarried, as if merely changing dance partners). Leila, unimpugned for her indiscretion and already embarked on a fresh round of social climbing, doesn’t want her disgraced mother gumming up her plans.
Prusha plays the initially obtuse, eventually sadly wiser Mrs. Lidcote with a touching vulnerability, Wharton (by way of Krausnick) having drawn an exquisitely detailed portrait of a social outcast permanently shunned for a sin which has since become commonplace.
“Traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy,’’ wrote Wharton (giving voice to Mrs. Lidcote) a century ago. She was in a position to know. Were Wharton alive today, she would no doubt have plenty of barbs to aim at a seemingly shameless society - as well as compassion for those who, for reasons of love, run afoul of what little propriety remains.
Sandy MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.