nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
January 8, 2005
Ripe Time’s mission is to “develop and present ensemble driven theatre
infused with rich language, visual power, and physical rigor.” Every element of
this purpose is richly present in their current production of Innocents,
a new stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The
House of Mirth. The turn-of-the-century New York novel, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, tells the story of Lily Bart—an independent woman who has become a curious figure in her social circle for turning down “good marriages.” Hers is a large personality that does not fit the expectations for women of her time. In a description of Bart early in the novel, Wharton says that she is like “a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of a drawing room… with a streak of sylvan freedom in her nature.”
Orphaned and living on a small inheritance, her independence has cost her. It is expensive to keep up with her better-funded friends—especially when favored activities include playing bridge for money—and as a result she has fallen deep into debt. Her vulnerable position and these “gambling debts” (as her slanderers lump all of her spending into this, most-damning category) soon attract those who would exploit her weakened state—such as a wealthy, married man who offers to help her “better invest” her money, but who actually hopes to turn her into a concubine dependent on him. Beyond the men who would exploit her waning status, Lily endures the even deeper betrayal of women in her circle who tarnish her reputation with public slights, providing fodder for gossip columns. Throughout this decline, Lily is offered hope in the person of Lawrence Seldon—another individual with a streak of freedom in his nature, who admires exactly the qualities that her peers scorn her for—but she is unable to make the leap to be with him.
Director Rachel Dickstein tells this story with a seamless blend of text, music and movement, making the most universal and visceral elements of Wharton’s classic—such as hope, fear, jealousy, and shame—tangible. In a straightforward, realistically-styled production these raw feelings might be lost under a layer of pretty speech and petticoats. But Innocents’ compelling movement sequences—choreographed by Dickstein in collaboration with the ensemble—bare the passionate life that is just under the surface of these well-spoken characters' mannered interactions. This heightens the emotional stakes and broadens the narrative to make the piece not just Lily’s story, but an exploration of the repressive society that, as Wharton says, has captured her.
The concept of confinement is vividly executed by the design of the production as well. Susan Zeeman Rogers’s ingenious set is a collection of imposing iron gates that swing and lock to form a variety of backdrops and barriers—all the walls of a cage. Though most of the center of the playing space is empty, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design—with instruments often shooting through Rogers’s gates to great effect—creates a rich multitude of settings and tones and helps smooth transitions between dialogue and movement. The beautiful original score by Katie Down, a recorded composition of cello, piano, and violin, also provides flow to the heightened storytelling. Ilona Somogyi’s costume design undresses women’s clothing of the period to expose the constricting bottom layer, the corset, and in every scene we can see the painful-looking crossed lace which binds the garment and forces the body into the ideal shape of the time. The lack of dress over the corset also leaves the women’s arms exposed, which is helpful in allowing more of a range of movement in the physical sequences.
The ensemble of seven actors are uniformly excellent—an experienced and versatile group who speak and move crisply and with sharp characterization. Paula McGonagle creates a sympathetic, engaging performance as Lily Bart, especially when she is at her most vulnerable. When Lily is betrayed with a public humiliation, or reeling from the near-sexual assault of her married benefactor, McGonagle takes the emotional impact as body blows. Left breathless and weak from these encounters, McGonagle conveys just how tenuous Lily’s place in the world is, with sheer drops on every side. Andy Paris makes Lawrence Seldon a charming kindred spirit for Lily. Unlike Lily who is corseted and spied on, the freedom of movement his being a man allows him is subtly physicalized in the way he circles around her in their scenes.
Innocents comes to the Ohio Theatre after being developed in previous workshops and showcases. The gains of this commitment to process show, as this is a fully-realized and layered piece. The spoken text of the adaptation is poetically spare and does not get mired in more exposition than necessary. Perhaps throughout its development, passages of text were let go of when it was found that more of the story could be shown in the movement, which required less to be said. This is beautiful, sophisticated theatre, and a steal at its modest ticket price.