Edith Wharton's former Lenox estate, The Mount, has long been landlord for Shakespeare and Company. Over its twenty-plus years of residence, Shakespeare and Company has staged many adaptations of Wharton's stories and novellas, in addition to the stripped down indoor and lavish outdoor Shakespeare performances around which the company's extensive training program is built. Now the Wharton Trust has announced that it will not be renewing Shakespeare's lease, casting off the devotees of the writer under whose giant shadow Mrs.Wharton appears less imposing than she may once the Bard's kings and clowns depart. However, the Wharton Trust ought to consider begging the troupe to leave behind their latest adaptation of the lady's work, "Summer", along with previous seasons' "Ethan Frome", as an ongoing tourist attraction. It is well worth a pilgrimage.
Wharton set out in both books to set down the peculiarities native to the Mount's Berkshire setting, the hardscrabble lives of the farmers and townsfolk who were trying to wrest a living from the picturesque terrain. Her well off readers in the early 1900's, like Berkshire tourists now, were fortunate to have someone like Mrs. Wharton to act as guide-- and Edith Wharton is fortunate to have adapters like Dennis Krausnick and Tina Packer to transfer her portrait of Berkshire life from page to stage. "Summer" is a lovely theatre piece, attuned to the pulse of the Wharton's novella, and conveying, as does Wharton's book, a strong sense of place. The set is by Jim Youngerman, costumes by Govane Lohbauer, lighting by Stephen Ball, and sound by Mark Huang; under Tina Packer's exquisite guidence they all work together with the authentic atmosphere of the Stables to make it immediate, to bring it home-- this is what happened, here or near here, not so very long ago.
The rhythms of the piece are like the blissfully slow passages of childhood's summers, when schoolwork is over and chores few. The Berkshire town of North Dormer languishes, drained of the bustle and hustle that marked its early flowering, beyond that brief spell of hope and prosperity that encouraged its citizens to believe that there was a future for the community beyond bare subsistence. Ambitious sons of the town have deserted it to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The failures who did not escape retreated to the mountain above, where beyond civilization's restraint they live the lives of degenerate savages: nasty, brutish, and short. The remaining inhabitants of this backwater are frugal pessimists, always ready with a discouraging word when frivolity or optimism threatens to break out. Literary dialogue seldom plays naturally when lifted directly from a text and put in actor's mouths, but here Krausnick faithful adaptation succeeds. The cast doubles and triples as the townspeople, and they share Wharton's descriptive passages Story Theatre fashion, passing easily from impersonation to narrative. Through the actors' sensitive embodiment of Wharton's words, sensual Nature and restrictive Society are equally strong presences, commanding and shaping the characters.
Summer's heroine, Charity (Tori Rhoades), was rescued from the mountain's savagery by Lawyer Royall -- Michael Hammond, in a characterization of riveting intensity and honed intelliigence-- who brought the toddler down to North Dormer and civilization to be fostered by his childless wife. The play begins after Charity has nursed Mrs. Royal through her last illness. After the funeral, Charity resists being sent away to school. She tells Lawyer Royall that she wants a part time job as North Dormer's town librarian, and that he must hire a housekeeper to help her with the domestic work and chaperone them, since the town disapproves of a young woman and her widower guardian keeping house together. Charity issues her commands like curses-- there is nothing of mutual grief or comfort in what passes between the pair. It's shocking, the blunt anger Charity wields against her foster father. Where does this anger come from? Is it laid over a basic, filial love, and, acting as a defense against incestuous impulses, simply a heightened version of the normal adolescent estrangement between father and daughter? Or did Charity's fostering never resemble adoption, either because it happened too late for parent-child bonding, or because all parties stressed that the relationship was one of "charity", not blood or mutuality? The girl is angry and disgusted, the patriarch is ashamed and compliant. It seems as if "Summer is going to be about incest, and, if so, the wonder is not that some people found "Summer" shocking upon its publication in 1917, but that it was ever published at all. Especially by a lady.
However, Lawyer Royall doesn't seem to consider that his desire for Charity is incestuous. He is ashamed that in a moment of weakness he made a pass at his ward, but this seems to be based on the fact that sex between them would be classified as fornication, and illegal -- as in his wife's lifetime his "weakness" would have led to adultery if Charity had not repulsed him. Charity, however, reacts to her guardian's desire as if it is the impulse itself which is monstrous. Royall's proposal of marriage, which he considers would make their sexual congress lawful, does not make the idea of sex with him less repulsive to her. And it isn't sex in general that Charity finds repulsive. When a handsome, cultured young man-- Lucius Harney, played ingenuously by the graceful Henry David Clarke-- shows up in the dusty North Dormer library and convinces her that he finds her attractive, Charity reciprocates. She quickly makes a series of choices that show that she has taken into account the unlikelihood that their mutual attraction will lead to marriage, and has decided that it would be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Nature conspires to bring the couple together as spring warms to summer, heating their young blood and strewing flowers along the Primrose Path.
Lucius is an architect from New York, researching a book about old houses. Charity agrees to show him around the neighborhood in Lawyer Royall's buggy, maximizing temptation and scandalizing the townsfolk on all sides. There are beautifully paced and complex scenes where everything comes together: the fourth of July Parade in Pittsfield, with magical fireworks; North Dormer's Old Home Week, where Charity poses in allegorical garb while Lawyer Royall delivers a spellbinding oration to the assembled townsfolk. The townsfolk are a vivid bunch: Jonathan Croy carrying the major burden of narration with perfect sensitivity, and delicately decent as the Reverend Miles, the town's parson, who also cares for the lost souls on the mountain; Karen Torbjornsen winning as Charity's shy best friend Ally Hawes, and appropriately wild as Ally's "ruined" sister, Julia; Josef Hansen impressive or unobtrusive as best suits an array of minor roles; and Diane Prusha authoritative as various embodiments of all the forces arrayed against Charity and her prospect of guiltless bliss-- the library's trustee, the town gossip, a greedy abortionist, a bitter old hill savage. They all play out the predictable story of a strongly sexed young woman without economic resources in the days before divorce and birth control freed men and women from the direst consequences of dalliance and of misalliance. Certainly, we are today as aware of the incompatibilities caused by differing backgrounds as Edith Wharton was a hundred years ago. But now we expect that blissful lovers will attempt to cross the gap anyway, live and learn, cohabiting or marrying as they please and suffering mainly from each other. Those who would disapprove of them haven't much left in the way of sanctions to apply. For Charity, on the outer brink of the twentieth century, the rules were solidly in place: Lucius shouldn't marry her, such a marriage would spoil his life; unmarried, she will have no way to support herself; sex with Lucius will disqualify her for marriage to anyone else, and for any of the few respectable ways for a woman to earn a living. What Charity does and how she makes sense of what she does is absorbing, and well told. The character grows.
But what is not told, the unknown region where Wharton dare not take us, is larger and deeper. The novel form, like Story Theatre and unlike the conventions of fourth wall drama, allows the storyteller to give us access to a character's thoughts as well as his or her speech and actions. But Wharton-- and adapter Krausnick after her-- does not go in to Charity's mind to show what was behind her first scene's anger, or in to Royall's mind to investigate the quality of his feelings for Charity. Incest rears its ugly fascinating head , but from then on it is simply there, looming, unacknowledged. It is even remotely possible that Charity is Royall's biological daughter-- the child is a prostitute's bastard, we are shown that he visits prostitutes. Royall says to his ward, "I'll never feel any way but one about you", but what that one way is, and how it applies in its singularity to a five year old child and to a sexually mature woman, are passed over in silence. There are things a lady must not know, and may not tell.