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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Remember when movie companies used only authentic locales for their films, instead of replicating the locations in order to keep costs down? Shakespeare & Company's production of Edith Wharton's novella Ethan Frome is as close as you can get to that sort of authenticity. It is an inspired combination of staging a story close to the site of the incident and on the very estate where it evolved into a work of art.
Mrs. Wharton's life style was a vast remove from the hard scrabble existence of her neighbors. She was rich both by birth and through her own earnings. However, her personal life was in upheaval during her years at The Mount and she was in a turmoil of indecision about whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or risk the social consequences of divorce. Having thus reached her own emotional fork in the road, she was particularly sensitive to the hell on earth faced by those whose choices were circumscribed by poverty and convention as well as their own limitations.
With this background in mind, the story of Ethan Frome is as much about the author as her neighbors. It is emotionally grounded in Mrs. Wharton's own should I, could I- and what if I don't quandaries and factually inspired by a real incident that captured her imagination while she was a trustee of the Lenox Library--an 1884 sleigh accident at the base of a hill in Lenox that left a young girl crippled. The tragedy of Ethan Frome and young Mattie Silver who stirs the embers of feelings buried in the course of living with a wife consumed by a sicknesses of the body and soul became one of Wharton's best known works. In the eighty-five years since its publication, its title character has evolved into a New England archetype.
Dennis Krausnick, who has extensive experience in adapting Wharton's work for Shakespeare & Company productions, has created a play that retains the novella's multi-genre elements-- mystery, drama, tragedy, romance-- without sacrificing its essential plot simplicity. To give us a flavor of Starkfield's life and its people Krausnick has cleverly cast one actor, (Josef Hansen), in multiple roles. He plays Homer Winterson, the narrator of the story--a young engineer stuck in Starkfield through the bleak winter-- and also a number of the townspeople he "interviews" in his quest to unpuzzle the story of the dour, prematurely old, crippled farmer, Ethan Frome. Each one of these narrator/interviewer metamorphoses introduces a flashback that focuses on the story's pivotal characters and the tensions and emotions swirling around them. To ease the transition between these multiple roles and to maintain a distance between Winterson as the curious transient and Winterson as one or another local personality, Hansen frequently makes the audience his confidantes; for example, when he flashes back to young Ethan's stumbling backward from his one chance to leave Starkfield, Winterson confides that "it never would have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter." This device works well and, except for an occasional too hasty shift in accents, Hansen is convincing whether he's a local businessman or his wife gently explaining why they won't be able to pay Ethan the money he's owed for a load of lumber.
The three people caught up in the tragic triangle at the heart of the play also do Mr. Krausnick's script and direction proud. Everything about Kevin Coleman is Ethan--his painful hobbling walk; his forlorn face and demeanor; the sudden flash of hope and yearning that shines through his despair when he's near Mattie, or talks about his days at technical school. His proposal to Zeena after his mother's death, his stoic endurance of the harsh cards fate and his own weakness have dealt him, his hesitant emotional reawakening--all convincingly evoke a life going through a thirty-year process of destruction. Annette Miller, who was most impressive in her premiere appearance with Shakespeare & Company last year, is equally so as the wife who controls her husband with her hypochondria. As Mattie, Elizabeth Aspenlieder' conveys the spirit of joy that has been frozen out of the Frome household. Yet in the end, she exhibits the same hesitation and weakness that doomed the younger Ethan and will now end both their dreams. .
The staging, (by Jim Youngerman), like all of this company's productions is bare-bones. The sawdust that covers the main area of the stage, and the scrim lit to cast shadows of the barren landscape effectively evoke the gloom that pervades the play. Too bad the director didn't trust the set to do its work without quite so much moving about of chairs which in this play does little to enhance or clarify anything. Also given the seats in this venue, I feel a break in the 90-minute production would avoid a lot of squeaky and unintended sound effects during the last 40 minutes. In fact, with or without a break, a judicious cut of perhaps 10 minutes during the final portion, would have improved the overall pace of this otherwise excellent production.
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