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Valley of Decision
The Porches Inn

Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision.

Ethan Flower  and Elizabeth Aspenlieder
Ethan Flower and Elizabeth Aspenlieder
(Photo Kenneth Sprague )
Edith Wharton never knew Dennis Krausnick, but during Shakespeare & Company's many seasons at Wharton's former estate, he has come to know her intimately through the work she left behind. Krausnick, who like everyone at this enterprising and ever growing actor-manager company wears many hats comfortably has applied his skills as an adapter to a number of Wharton's novels and some twenty of her many short stories. With the company's move out of The Mount and to its spacious new property at nearby Kemble Street, plays by and about Wharton will give way to other literary figures. But not this year.

To celebrate the arrival of Wharton and Krausnick in Lenox -- she a hundred years ago, he seventy-five years later, three of his most popular dramatizations -- Ethan Frome, Summer and Fiery Rain -- will be reprised at the Founders Theater, each for just a single performance. And for a more substantial taste of Edith channeled through Krausnick, there's a brand new adaptation of her very first novel, also a hundred years old, though fallen into the public domain since it's never been reprinted.

That newly dramatized, The Valley of Decision, is as Krausnick himself has been quoted as saying, not a great novel. It's a historical romance about a minor aristocrat who becomes ruler of a small, fictious 18th Century country. You might call it an aristocratic rags to royalty saga.

Odo Valseca's (Ethan Flower) story parallels the social, religious and economic battles that defined the European Enlightenment of the 18th Century and the French and American revolutions. To tie politics to passion, the love of Odo's life, Fulvia Vivaldi (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), is the daughter of his teacher, a philosopher whose dream for a more democratic society at once binds them together and separates them.

As anyone who takes the time to download and at least browse through the novel's e-text available from the Internet's Project Gutenberg will quickly recognize that Krausnick has done a masterful job of paring Wharton's wordy, four-part text to its dramatic core. His script moves right to novel's last part in which Odo becomes King (in this case the title is Duke) in waiting, with just enough of the events of the early sections spliced into the dialogue to fill in the background. This judicious editing process brings us right to the crux of Odo's dilemma -- to await his uncle's death so he can rule the tiny Duchy or to fulfill his personal dream of marrying Fulvia. Odo's prefers life with Fulvia and sees little satisfaction in becoming the head of a "toy kingdom." Fulvia, on the other hand, sees his ascendancy to the throne as a power base for bringing their dreams of democracy to fruition. This aptly chosen opening serves to establishes Odo as a well-educated, well-intentioned man who becomes a pawn to the conflicting interests of everyone else.

Flower and Aspenlieder make a handsome pair of lovers whose fortunes play out on the political chessboard (in case you miss the metaphor of Odo as a pawn to the friends and advisers who try to outmaneuver each other to achieve their various agendas, there's a table with chess board, one of the few props in the otherwise sparsely furnished playing area). They invest their parts with passion. Though Aspenlieder conveys the inner turmoil that leads the proud Fulvia to renounces the man she loves for the ideals about which she's equally passionate, her later willingness to become royal mistress is somewhat less convincing, perhaps unavoidably so in this extensive a text condensation.

The play's most compelling moments are provided by the excellent supporting cast: Lon Troland Bull as a Jesuit priest and close adviser; Andrew Borthwick Leslie as a foppish poet; Mel Cobb as the power-hungry Count and prime minister who supports continued aristocratic rule; Michael Burnet as the Count's fiery, opposite-minded half-brother and Odo's oldest friend (and, in the end, worst enemy).

Catherine Taylor-Williams gets to play the most interesting character, the Austrian widow of Odo's uncle whom he is persuaded to marry to keep her from defecting to and strengthening the position of her native land. She also undergoes the most change, emerging from amusing spendthrift to quite touching and wise royal consort trying to save her husband from certain disaster. In a single directorial misstep, Rebecca Holderness has the Duchess speak with an Austrian accent which, given that none of the other actors try to sound Italian, seems unnecessary -- especially since later in the play she allows Ms. Taylor-Williams' accent to fade away almost completely.

Mr. Krausnick's smart adaptation and Ms. Holderness's strong direction, notwithstanding, The Valley of Decision, is, in the final analysis, one of those plays so full of political fervor that polemics overwhelm its characters, making them mouthpieces for points of view first, and real people who happen to be caught up in historic events second. One surrealistic sequence in which Odo falls a sleep and is surrounded by the nightmarish ghosts of everyone pressing in on him is an interesting percursor of Wharton's numerous ghost stories. The scenic design, as already mentioned, is barer than bare bones as is typical of Springlawn Theater productions, but the intimacy of the space combined with the handsome costumes and evocative set design, compensate for any missing theatrical bells and whistles.

Valley of Decision
Author: Edith Wharton, adapted by Dennis Krausnick
Director: Rebecca Holderness
Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Fulvia Vivaldi) , Andrew Borthwick-Leslie (Count Alfieri (Count Trescorre), Lon Troland Bull (Father Orazio) , Michael Burnet (Carlo de Gambo), Mel Cobb (Count Trescorre),, Ethan Flower (Odo Valescca), Catherine Taylore-Williams (The Duchess Maria Clementina)
Scenic Design: Lauren Kurki
Costumes: Jennifer Halpern
Lights: Stephen D. Ball
Sound: Jason Fitzgerald
Shakespeare & Co/Spring Lawn Theatre, 70 Kemble St. 413/ 637-3353; for performance schedule (in rotation with Golda's Balcony and this season's The Wharton One-Acts
Running time: 5/24/02-9/01/02; opening 6/01/02
$24-$48 in 2 reserved seating sections; student, senior & group rates available.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
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