Producing plays adapted from the works of Edith Wharton isn’t the easiest of theatrical endeavors, but Catherine Taylor-Williams is confident there’s an audience out there waiting and wanting to see the 1921 Pulitzer Prize winner brought to life on the stage.
And, if that stage happens to be on the grounds of The Mount, the writer’s beautiful home in the Berkshires, then Taylor-Williams figures she’s already well on her way to success.
“It’s not like we’re going to attract thousands of people, but there is an audience out there,” said Taylor-Williams, who is celebrating her fifth season as founder and director of The Wharton Salon with productions of “The Quicksand” and “The Looking Glass,” to be performed in The Stables Theatre at The Mount through Aug. 25. “We have our niche. There are plenty of people out there who love Edith Wharton and who love The Mount, and it’s been wonderful to have several writers step forward and say they want to adapt Wharton stories for our company actors. We’re breaking new ground artistically, and I couldn’t be happier with what is developing.”
’Two by Wharton’
WHAT: Two plays by the Wharton Salon based on Edith Wharton’s, ‘The Quicksand’ and ‘The Looking Glass’
WHERE: The Stables Theatre at The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, Mass.
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 5:30 p.m. next Wednesday through Aug. 23; and 3 p.m. Aug. 24-25
HOW MUCH: $35
MORE INFO: 1-800-838-3006 or www.whartonsalon.org
“Two by Wharton” opened Wednesday and will run through Aug. 25. While there is no show this Friday, performances typically start at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, and at 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Alison Ragland, a playwright from New Orleans, has adapted Wharton's 1902 short story “The Quicksand” for Taylor-Williams, and Elaine Smith of New York City has created a stage version of “The Looking Glass.” Each of the plays is less than an hour with a 15-minute intermission between them. Taylor-Williams is directing “The Quicksand,” and Daniela Varon of New York City is in charge of “The Looking Glass.”
“These are two new plays that have never been produced,” said Taylor-Williams. “It’s been great fun working with our two playwrights adapting these two plays from classic American literature. Sometimes there are long, descriptive passages in Wharton’s work that have to be cut, and then sometimes you use a chorus figure, a servant or a character from town, to read some of these descriptive passages so the audience is sure of the story line unfolding in front of them. We’ve been talking a lot about the script in rehearsals, and how we don’t want the dialogue to sound too literary when we speak it.”
Ariel Bock, a longtime member of Shakespeare & Company, also in Lenox, stars in “The Quicksand” as Mrs. Quentin, “an old fashioned intuitive woman” of the Fifth Avenue social set who is consoling her son Alan, played by Wesley Cooper. Alan has been jilted by his girlfriend Hope, played by Ava Lindenmaier.
“I like the play because it’s about a mother who has to make some difficult choices,” said Bock. “It’s a great story by Wharton, a very well-written play, and I thought it might be a challenging role in a lot of ways. I don’t want to give away too much, but there is a surprise at the end that kind of explains the beginning.”
While this is Bock’s first summer with The Wharton Salon, she was a longtime member of Shakespeare & Company, and performed at The Mount for years when Tina Packer’s troupe called the place home. Packer moved Shakespeare & Company to 70 Kemble St. in Lenox in 2001.
“My very first role with the company was 35 years ago in an Edith Wharton play they did the very first year,” remembered Bock. “I had never read anything by her until I was with Shakespeare & Company, and once I started I was hooked. She writes fascinating characters in wonderful situations that could be quite modern even though they were written a century ago. I think Edith was an amazing woman.”
So does Taylor-Williams, another former Shakespeare & Company member who decided to start producing Wharton plays because of the author’s ability to create interesting female characters.
“With Shakespeare you had about two interesting female characters a season and that was it,” said Taylor-Williams. “Wharton gives us more of an opportunity to perform, especially women of a certain age. I didn’t know anything about her until I spent my first summer at Shakespeare & Company, and I was just blown away by the quality of some of the Wharton pieces we did that first year.”
A writer and a home
Wharton was born on Jan. 24, 1862, in New York City, the daughter of wealthy parents. She married Edward Robbins Wharton in 1886, and the couple began building The Mount in 1901. In 1905, while living at The Mount, she published her first major work, “The House of Mirth.” She remained there until 1911, when she moved to Paris, where she spent much of the rest of her life until her death in 1937.
The Mount was out of Wharton’s hands by 1912 and had a series of owners up until 1980, when the Edith Wharton Restoration group was formed to ensure the survival of the house and grounds. Financial problems nearly closed The Mount in 2008, but an accelerated fundraising campaign, buoyed by the help of former first lady Laura Bush and musician James Taylor, brought in enough money to keep the house open. Visitors are welcome on the grounds throughout the year, although the house itself, the stables and bookstore are open only from May through October.
“It means a lot to us to have a small theater company here, dedicated to performing some of Wharton’s short stories,” said Rebecca McDougall, communications director at The Mount. “We have a lot going on here for the summer, and for people who love Edith Wharton, seeing a performance of one of her plays when they visit our site really adds to the wonderful experience they’ve had.”
‘The Looking Glass’
“The Looking Glass,” the second part of “Two by Wharton,” is adapted from a short story written in 1937. A one-woman show starring Jane Nichols, “The Looking Glass” tells the story of Cora Atlee, a masseuse for rich society women.
The Wharton Salon made its debut in 2009 with “Xingu,” performed “Summer” in 2010, “Autres Temps” in 2011 and “Inner House” in 2012. All are Wharton short stories with the exception of “Inner House,” adapted by Dennis Krausnick from Wharton’s 1934 autobiography. Tod Randolph played Wharton in what was a vivid account of Wharton’s public and private life directed by Normi Noel.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or email@example.com