Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2003.
“I had known something for New England village life long before I made my home in the same county as my imaginary Starkfield…however, I had an uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little…resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it. Even the abundant enumeration of sweet-fern, asters, and mountain-laurel and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left me with the feeling that the outcropping granite had in both cases been overlooked.”
– Edith Wharton, from her introduction to Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome was Wharton’s attempt to portray “these figures, my granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil and scarcely more articulate.” This left her with the challenge of how to tell the tale about and for people who could not and would not articulate it for themselves. She chose to use as her narrator an unnamed young man, an engineer brought to the fictional Berkshire village of Starkfield to work on the nearby railroad, a force of the future which would play a key role in erasing the solidified and isolated life Ethan and his contemporaries have been living.
“Each of my chroniclers contributes to the narrative just so much as he or she is capable of understanding of what to them, is a complicated and mysterious case; and only the narrator if the tale has scope enough to see it all, to resolve it back into simplicity, and to put it in its rightful place…”
Dennis Krausnick, who has adapted and directed Ethan Frome for the stage, said that his breakthrough came when he realized that Ethan’s story existed entirely in this narrator’s imagination. Krausnick gave him a name, Homer Winterson, and allows him to portray all the residents of Starkfield because they too are presented to us only through Homer’s eyes.
This conceit works. It works well because actor Steve Boss manages to balance taking on enough of the physical and vocal traits of the different townspeople with remaining identifiably Homer Winterson – a clever name combining the ultimate ancient storyteller with a sense of the deep, dark, frozen world of the 19th century Berkshire winter Wharton so eloquently evokes.
Boss sets the scenes for us as Homer encounters a worn and wounded Ethan twenty years after he was in a serious sledding accident which changed his life from a dismal routine of hardscrabble farming and caring for a crotchety invalid wife to one of complete despair and hopelessness. As the last lines of the book and the play state: “…the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Frome’s down in the graveyard…”
I did not have an opportunity to see the earlier versions of Krausnick’s work in the more intimate and less technologically advanced Stables Theatre at The Mount. Those who did said that the experience was harrowing because you were so physically close to the actors and because the spare setting allowed you to create so much of Ethan’s tragedy in your own imagination. This new mounting at the Founder’s Theatre, Shakespeare & Company’s largest performance space at their new home, is absolutely beautiful to look at. Scenic designer Kris Stone, lighting designer Nathan Towne-Smith and sound designer Jason Fitzgerald have collaborated to bring the crisp air of a Berkshire winter to life. A gorgeous cyclorama of stark trees and one winding road against a background of frozen white hangs behind all the action. On the upper level, Stone has created a silent, snow-covered cemetery. Two raised areas, accessed by a central staircase, create space for the two small upstairs bedrooms in the Frome’s house, and the large thrust stage, with its floor painted blue-white and sprinkled with faux snow, serves as the Frome’s kitchen and as the great outdoors. A small stool which pulls up out of the floor of the stage serves as Ethan’s sleigh. A real toboggan with runners is brought on for the final sledding scene.
Shakespeare & Company stalwarts Kevin Coleman and Elizabeth Aspenlieder reprise their roles as Ethan and Mattie. Coleman is tall and gaunt, the very “granite outcropping” of a man Wharton had in mind, embodying the stoical essence of New England. He does a nice job of moving quickly between the younger, more hopeful Ethan, and the drawn shadow of a man he is in his fifties. He is nicely matched by the equally granite-like Mary Guzzy as his ailing but determined wife Zenobia, called Zeena, and Aspenlieder’s soft and loveable Mattie Silver, Zeena’s young cousin who has come to “do for” her in her illness.
Although Wharton’s Mattie is also, technically, a New Englander, she is from coastal Connecticut, a flatter, more temperate, and more cosmopolitan world. It is that contrast that so attracts Ethan to her and leads ultimately to their doom.
Some of the power described to me by those who had seen this show in the Stables seems to be lacking in the larger space. The experience was more theatrical and less visceral. But that is a minor point. Ethan Frome remains a classic tale which reminds us all of the mortal dangers of inertia in life, that no one can be allowed control over our destinies but ourselves. It also brings sharply in to focus how very hard and how very different life was for our ancestors in this area only a few generations earlier. No age is perfect, but we certainly have much to be thankful for that even in a harsh and unrelenting winter like the one just past, we are never completely trapped and frozen in place.
Ethan Frome runs through October 26 at the Founders' Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two hours with no intermission. This is a mature and disturbing play. I wouldn't bring children under 12. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003