Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
The Age of Innocence
Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), a genteel attorney in New York City during the 1870s, is set to marry May Welland (Helen Cespedes), who is demure and pretty. Countess Ellen Olenska (alluring Sierra Boggess) arrives from Europe, and a marriage which is not working. Evidently, Ellen and Newland, when they were children, knew and liked one another. She is desirable, bold, and, with a transcendent voice, sings "Beautiful Dreamer." Newland joins her in a duet.
While Newland respects May, he is physically drawn to Ellen. The Countess, in turn, reciprocates. Yet, May and Newland are wed. The pivotal question is, can and/or will Newland and Ellen somehow find one another and realize their blazing mutual love?
May was brought up to become a wife and mother in conventional modes. Raised amid New York high society, she seeks to follow a path that seems preordained. Initially, she has complete faith in Newland. He, too, is on course to become an even wealthier lawyer, complete with proper trappings. Ellen, however, wearing revealing dresses as designed by costumer Linda Cho, is a liberated young woman and, to Newland, represents life beyond typical parameters. She is enticing and tempting.
Narrating and providing necessary plot continuity is actor Boyd Gaines as The Old Gentleman. The role enables him to embody Newland Archer, many years later, and look backward at who he was, what occurred, and, wistfully (by implication), another possible scenario. Gaines, a multiple Tony Award winner, is effective. Still, it is worth considering whether this device was the only option to provide linkage.
Boggess, Cespedes, and Veenstra, all young attractive actors, are splendidly convincing. The Age of Innocence is a period piece and the performers perfectly capture the epoch. McGrath has a keen ear for dialogue. He has previously written, among other works, the screenplay for the film, Bullets Over Broadway as well as the book for Broadway's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
This is a world premiere, and scenic designer John Lee Beatty (who has created more than 110 sets on Broadway) stamps the production with a unique look. Running from floor to ceiling are curving grid-like archways which serve to frame the proceedings.
Doug Hughes, fortunately, does not rush the action. He allows the scripting to unfold by increments, layer upon layer. He coaxes impressive acting turns which are supplemented by pianist Li and original music by Mark Bennett. Ben Stanton's lighting greatly assists with tone and atmosphere.
Newland is faced with a decision: whether to adhere to conventional expectations or follow the passion within his heart. Many characters, throughout imaginative literature and live stage, address such choices. The Age of Innocence, Wharton's rendering of people and place, is sweet but specifically sharp, too. The youthful characters are, ultimately, far from fragile and delicate. Their human vulnerabilities are recognizable and touching.
The Age of Innocence, through May 6, 2018, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, CT. For tickets, call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.