Ethan Frome

Adapted from Edith Wharton by Dennis Krausnick
Directed by Dennis Krausnick
At the Stables Theatre
Shakespeare & Company - Lenox MA Through October 20

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Shakespeare and Company's Stables Theatre at The Mount is the perfect home for Edith Wharton's New England tragedy, "Ethan Frome". Wharton wrote the novel while living in Lenox, and the terrifying toboggan run that supplies the climax of the plot was inspired by a similar incident that happened locally -- the spot is still shown to tourists. The Stables as background looks right, with its austere wooden walls and plank floor covered with saw dust. It feels both old and improvised, temporary. The theatre smells right., too -- heavy with damp vegetation and a faint mingling of human and animal.

Wharton wrote "Ethan Frome" about people who were her neighbors, but whose lives were at a huge distance from the circle who enjoyed her Italianate villa The Mount and its elegancies: farmers who worked stony Berkshire land that yielded less than a living for a life's work; their wives for whom a colored glass pickle dish was an irreplaceable treasure; hired girls who counted themselves lucky to work for food and a place to sleep in the cold attic.

In Dennis Krasnick's adaptation of "Ethan Frome", Josef Hansen plays Homer Winterson, the engineer from the next valley who is the narrator. Winterson is stuck in Starkfield through the winter of 1884 while he is working on a project nearby, and the young man is eager for any gossip that would liven the tedium of his assignment. He is struck by the bleak appearance of Ethan Frome (Kevin Coleman), a crippled farmer who seems much older than his fifty years. Frome's face is a mask of tragedy. As Winterson describes how he ferreted out Frome's secret that year, and the story of the events of 1860 unfolds in flashback, Hansen takes on the characters of the Starkfield townspeople, each of whom supplies a piece of the puzzle.

Hansen maintains a little distance between himself and the locals, and he confides in us, the audience, as one outsider to another. Among his metamorphoses the character of a sympathetic businessman's wife who has to explain to Ethan why her husband must refuse payment on a load of lumber, and that of an eager part time laborer who'd like to be taken on full-time at Ethan's farm are most impressively delineated. Colman has an even greater challenge, embodying a character who is always restrained and laconic yet who must be seen in three separate stages of emotional torment over the course of nearly thirty years. Coleman carries it all off, providing a solid center for the drama.

Annette Miller is first touching and then frightening as Zeena, an older cousinly connection who comes to the farm to help nurse Ethan's mother through her last illness. Ethan is so daunted by the prospect of living on the farm in utter loneliness after his mother's death that he asks Zeena to marry him -- and she is so without prospects herself that she agrees. A few years later a disappointed Zeena is settling into an invalidism of her own, and she sends for Mattie Silver (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) a distant relation who was left skilless and destitute when her businessman father died bankrupt, to take over the heavy housework for her.

But it isn't long before Zeena is sure she has made a mistake. Mattie is poor as poor can be, and quite desperate to please after the rejection she has suffered from her other relations -- but Mattie is young, and as she gets fresh air and decent food she begins to seem pretty. Aspenlieder's Mattie has a living warmth about her that hasn't yet been reduced to the cold silence that permeates the Frome farm, and we are in dread of what may happen to her. Mattie laughs whenever she can, and dreams of dancing, and of racing down Lenox mountain on a toboggan. Zeena sees how Ethan looks at Mattie, and is determined that the girl must go -- though Mattie has nowhere to go, and not a penny of pay to support her until she finds other work.

The actors in the central triangle are beautifully grounded, moving though Jim Youngerman's stark set with a weight of experience that conjures up the off-stage details of their restricted lives, and a sense of stifled hopes beating against the cage of circumstance. Govane Lohbauer's costumes proclaim that warmth and minimal decency are all the characters dare aspire to -- when Zeena puts on a respectable black hat to travel to the doctor's office, it registers as a piece of determined selfishness. Gabriel Lloyd and Chris Sigrist's lighting is dim, atmospheric: on long winter evenings when kerosene is an expense that must be justified by day labor, light is in short supply. Buggy rides, a village dance, tobogganers, are all sketched in by the team's sound design.

Krasnick's dramatization of "Ethan Frome" has taken theatrical shape in a way that matches and makes visible the New England temperament. Duty and endurance -- those are allowed expression. The passions that rage below must be inferred from a sidelong glance, a hesitation, the track the downward rush of an out-of-control toboggan has left in the snow.

Announcement: Shakespeare and Company's Halloween Benefit
Wharton Theatre October 24 - November 2
By W. W. Jacobs.

Several ghost stories have been published about The Mount, Edith Wharton's 1902 summer mansion. And it is easy to doubt them on paper. But come listen to Shakespeare & Company members who have lived in the house for over 20 years and then see if you believe. Sightings of Edith and her husband, Teddy, the rumblings of the fourth-floor servants and sounds of students from the days of the Foxhollow Girls' School. It all starts in the Stables, then a surprise-filled guided tour down the spooky path to The Mount leads to a chilling performance of "The Monkey's Paw"

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