Review: "The Age of Innocence" at Hartford Stage

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

“Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”  -Edith Wharton

When I heard that Hartford Stage was putting an Edith Wharton novel on stage, I jumped for joy. Wharton was one of my favorite novelists in my late teens and early twenties. Having started with Ethan Frome in high school, I quickly devoured her other novels and short stories. I found her descriptions of beautiful, rich interiors and high society manners engrossing, mostly due to my interest in historical fiction at the time. I also adored the tragedy that befell on her characters, and the sacrifices made by them (usually for love – because I was a typical swooning young woman at the time). For me, film adaptations vary from excellent (House of Mirth with Gillian Anderson) to mediocre (Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder), but lucky for us, Douglas McGrath’s smart, concise adaptation of Age of Innocence definitely leans toward the former: It is a worthy reworking of Wharton’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel with standout performances and stunning staging.

In another Connecticut collaboration with New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center, this world premiere is told somewhat from the nostalgic perspective of Newland Archer as an older man (Boyd Gaines). The setting is upper-class society in 1870s New York City. Attorney Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra) is newly engaged to the lovely, sheltered May Welland (Helen Cespedes). Controversy is stirred at the arrival of May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), who has caused a scandal by leaving her husband to come to New York and stay with May’s grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence). Upon Ellen’s arrival, Newland questions his choice of bride, and is drawn to the exotic, worldly countess. Newland tries to expedite his wedding to May to forget his feelings for Ellen, and is successful: Newland and May marry, but prove to have a loveless society marriage. Eventually, Ellen and Newland encounter each other again while May and Newland are summering in Newport. Upon meeting the Countess again, Newland plans to run away with Ellen, hearing she is returning to Europe. However, Newland’s plans are thwarted by some surprise news from May, leading Newland into a more ordinary life. However, later in life, Newland has one last opportunity to see the Countess, but will he meet with her?

Boyd Gaines, Sierra Boggess, and Andrew Veenstra T. Charles Erickson

Boyd Gaines, Sierra Boggess, and Andrew Veenstra T. Charles Erickson

Mr. Gaines is marvelous as the older Archer: Mr. Gaines is engaged and engaging in every moment during the 105-minute production. He brings humor and solace to the character as he recollects his story. Unfortunately, Mr. Veenstra, did not provide the same depth of character as his narrative counterpart. His manner and speech felt spurious, although some I spoke with thought that Mr. Veenstra was performing in the style of the period, which may have come across as artificial. The women were much more consistent: Ms. Cespedes plays May excellently (much to my relief because I HATED Winona Ryder as May in the 1993 Scorsese film). Ms. Cespedes understands and portrays the subtleties of May’s character, so she comes across as more than just the doe-eyed fiancée. Ms. Boggess too performs well, giving a multi-dimensional performance as the Countess, and proving her acting skills beyond the musical theater genre. Ms. Lawrence is memorable and full of wit as the grand dame grandmother to Lucy and Ellen.

Director Doug Hughes creates beautiful tableaus with his scenes, especially when he incorporates the elder Archer in the vignettes during poignant moments. The beautiful tableaus are complemented by the stunning set design by John Lee Beatty, who turns the stage into a grand metal and glass conservatory. Linda Cho’s costumes bring the elegance of Gilded Age New York to the stage. Having a pianist on stage playing throughout the show only adds to the elegant atmosphere of the overall production.

So, Wharton fans, rejoice! Hartford Stage’s Age of Innocence is a winning production of the author’s brilliant text, both in performance and spectacle.