‘Age of Innocence’ captures Wharton’s 1870’s New York

By LIZ KEILL

PRINCETON, NJ – Leave it to author Edith Wharton to decode the lives of staid, wealthy New Yorkers as she does so hauntingly in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Age of Innocence.”

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Douglas McGrath adapted the novel for a stirring, 95-minute production at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Doug Hughes has directed the play with great style and flourish. Amazingly, it captures the essence of the novel, its thwarted romance and rigid mores, with distinction.

Actors move seamlessly through the handsome set designed by John Lee Beatty.  At times it’s an elegant ballroom, at other times an ornate train station, then again it could be the Archers at home.

Boyd Gaines is The Old Gentleman who recalls the passions of his youth with both compassion and humor. His handsome younger self, Newland Archer, is played with charm and intensity by Andrew Veenstra. Newland is engaged to May Welland (Helen Cespedes), yet finds himself drawn to the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess.) There’s plenty of interference along the way as  society’s demands for respectability outweigh the passions of youth. Darrie Lawrence as Mrs. Manson Mingott is domineering and adamant in her insistence on adhering to codes of conduct.  Several actors play a variety of roles, including Joseph Adams, Josh Salt and Deirdre Madigan.  Haviland Morris is Mrs. Archer.

Linda Cho’s delicious costumes add to the timeless beauty of the scene. Although the actors rarely change what they wear, we are nevertheless caught up in the passage of time. And this consistency may add to the seamless progression of the plot. There are no long pauses along the way. Ben Stanton’s lighting clearly defines time and place. And Peter Pucci’s choreography in the dance sequence is ravishing.

When Ellen and Newland sing “Beautiful Dreamer,” it’s a heartbreaking moment. You can sense his urge to break free, to explore the world and find adventure with the beautiful countess. But, as he concludes later in life, he has settled for May’s determination to live a predictable, safe existence within the confines of New York City and Newport. Indeed, he notes, as time goes on, he and their children make every effort to protect her from the reality of change.  We also learn that May is a manipulator, sharing a secret with her cousin, Ellen, which locks in Newland’s fate as her husband.

“The Age of Innocence” is a pleasure to watch and listen to on so many levels. Don’t miss this jewel of a play.  Performances continue though Oct. 7 at the McCarter Theatre. For tickets, call 609-258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.