Chances are that audience members attending “The Age of Innocence” Wednesday night at Hartford Stage bought tickets out of interest in the story and the theater. However in 1800s high society New York, people did not necessarily go to theaters to see the shows but rather to watch the people attending them.
That’s where our story – the stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the same name – begins. At the opera. We peer through the binoculars of a male traditionalist into scandal unfolding in a nearby box. How dare an established upper class family like the Wellands parade their relative Countess Ellen Olenska out in public after a rumored affair and separation from her Count husband? It could surely ruin her beautiful cousin May’s reputation!
Today this petty outlook may seem ridiculous. But it was a very serious reality locked into the structure of society during the time period. So you may think a play like “The Age of Innocence” could be a droll nostalgic walk through history that is hard to relate to in the modern day. Not so in this production.
Tony and Emmy Nominee Douglas McGrath puts a satirically comical spin on the narrative that is very much catered toward a modern day audience. Because of the time gap, we are able to absorb the dialogue from a contemporary perspective that the characters, and even Wharton herself, would not grasp because of societal and cultural evolutions that had not happened yet. Like May (Helen Cespedes) exclaiming that having several small tables at a wedding reception instead of one long one would be exotic. The dramatic irony is not lost on us.
Four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines takes the helm as the trusted, affable, and reflectively humorous narrator, Newland Archer, who guides us through a story that is actually timeless. A secret love triangle. His younger self, played by Andrew Veenstra, is in love and set to marry May, the woman of his and society’s dreams. But then he realizes he is actually in love with her cousin Ellen. Will he follow his heart or heed to society’s expectations? The mechanism of an adult narrator reflecting on his youth gives the same charm to the play as “A Christmas Story.” It also accentuates the theme of the seeming innocence of young love that might not be so innocent in the grand scheme of things.
Veenstra presents a charismatic, upstanding gentleman engaged to a pillar of New York society, yet he grapples with his morals as he defends and falls for the one character, Ellen (Sierra Boggess), who defies every societal standard in his world. Cespedes is lovely as May, so it is hard to fault her porcelain character for adhering to the views and rules she grew up with. But it is also hard to dislike Ellen, as Boggess pours sincerity and bright energy into her character.
The set designed by John Lee Beatty is astonishing. The backdrop of a ballroom left dark except for an annual party is very fitting for the entirety of the story. It represents the confines of society and ornate tradition. A room left dark and uninhabited most of the time, like a dining room, becomes a product of history. The room grows archaic and distant in functionality just as Newland (Veenstra) and Ellen find themselves challenging tradition and society. They try to tunnel through the walls to get out of that room, but the foundation is too strong to completely escape it even as their views evolve.
Darrie Lawrence gives matriarch Mrs. Manson Mingott, Ellen’s and May’s grandmother, a cunningly humorous Mother Tyrell quality (Game of Thrones) as she utilizes her status and leverages societal expectations to serve as a helpful manipulator.
“The Age of Innocence,” directed by Tony Award winner Doug Hughes, is story that really resonates with the audience, elevating the novel that made Wharton the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction to a modern day crowd.
It runs through May 6 at Hartford Stage on 50 Church Street. More information on tickets is available at http://www.hartfordstage.org.