REVIEW: Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever’ and ‘The Fullness of Life’ at Shakespeare & Co: Sophisticated, incisive

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By Wednesday, Aug 30 Arts & Entertainment
Olivia Winslow
Corinna May and Diane Prusha in the Shakespeare & Company production of two Edith Wharton comedies, adapted for stage by Dennis Krausnick and playing through Sept. 10 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Adapted by Dennis Krausnick
Directed by Normi Noel
Featuring David Joseph, Corinna May, and Diane Prusha

Adapter Dennis Krausnick and director Normi Noel reveal common themes in counterpoint in pairing two dramatizations of Edith Wharton’s short stories at Shakespeare & Company. Arguably Wharton’s best-known short story, ROMAN FEVER, is a taught study of envy, betrayal and deception. Two Manhattan society doyennes, recently widowed, revisit Rome in the 1920s, where decades before they were courted as prospective brides and reminisce about their friendship and their husbands, and assess the suitability of their daughters as marriage material. The expressive, embittered, and restless Alida Slade holds a grudge against her “best friend”, the meek, reserved and matronly Grace Ansley, rooted in a youthful power struggle. Decades before in Rome, Alida tried to deceive Grace so as to secure her own engagement to her future Mr. Slade. When revenge gets served in just a three-word, final line in this crisp, 40-minute drama, it comes civilized but cold, swift and cruel, too.

Corinna May and David Joseph in 'Roman Fever.'

Corinna May and David Joseph in ‘Roman Fever.’ Photo: Olivia Winslow

ROMAN FEVER is one of my favorite Wharton stories because of its economic composition, which Krausnick’s adaptation observes precisely. Noel’s direction paces the dialogue appropriately, if not slowly at times, to suggest the lazy, late afternoon patio lunch where the story occurs. Corinna May as Alida provides all the movement, elegantly stalking the patio, like a lioness on the hunt, distracted temporarily by the sexy allure of an Italian waiter (played by David Joseph) or episodes of lush, self-pity. Diane Pasha as Grace sits, with pregnant poise, as lioness, too, but with serene, steady composure, aloof to Alida’s hunt. Or is she onto it?

If ROMAN FEVER explores the lower side of moral practicalities, THE FULLNESS OF LIFE takes the high road. Woman (played by Ms. Pasha) shortly after death, finds herself on the threshold of afterlife. Before being assigned eternity with her previously departed husband, Spirit (Ms. May) extracts from Woman that her marriage was “an incomplete affair.” Spirit tempts her with the option of realizing her unfilled dreams from her past, real life in an eternal, ideal relationship with Man, a prefect Adonis (Mr. Joseph as sex object again). What’s a woman to do?

Wharton’s tone in FULLNESS is witty, her tenor contemplative. The conclusion of FULLNESS might not hold the surprise of ROMAN FEVER, but it is as incisive. In both dramatizations, authentic adaptation, uncluttered direction and skillful acting prevail for two acts of sophisticated storytelling.

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The Wharton Comedies plays in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Sept. 10. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 637-3353 or go online to shakespeare.org.


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