Edith Wharton fever burns on stage at an historic hall in West Stockbridge

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WEST STOCKBRIDGE — It's been 14 years since actresses Corinna May and Diane Prusha last worked together on Dennis Krausnick's stage adaptation of Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever." They are no strangers to each other as colleagues, peers, acting mates, nor to Normi Noël, who is directing the Berkshires-based actresses in "Roman Fever," the second half of a bill of two-one act plays drawn from Wharton short stories that opens at 7 p.m. Thursday at West Stockbridge 1854 Town Hall, home of the West Stockbridge Historical Society and a new theater company — Pythagoras Theatre Works.

In "Roman Fever," Prusha plays Grace Ansley opposite May's Alida Slade, two high-society New York widows vacationing in Rome with their respective marriageable daughters, who, during a fateful conversation over some wine on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the ruins of the Roman Forum, are made to confront the deeply painful unfinished business in their friendship.

Prusha also is in the first play, "The Promise," based upon Wharton's "Les Metteurs en Scene," in which she plays Blanche to Chuck Schwager's Jean, two Gilded Age opportunists who feed off the largesse of members of the moneyed class with whom they ingratiate themselves.

Founded in 2012 by Schwager and producing artistic director Michael Burnet, the not-for-profit Pythagoras Theatre Works — which operates under a special agreement with Actors Equity Association — is in its third season of performances.

"We didn't have a home when we started the theater in 2012," Burnet said over early morning coffee at a gallery/coffeehouse near what is now Pythagoras' home — the West Stockbridge 1854 Town Hall, owned and operated by the West Stockbridge Historical Society. The hall is a venue for a variety of exhibits, concerts, performances, talks and special events.

The set-up for the Wharton plays accommodates 50, "but we can go up to 80," Burnet said.

"Our coming here was fortuitous. The town is going through a renaissance. We just happened along at the right time."

While Pythagoras is not averse to doing a contemporary play every now and then, Barnet wants to keep the artistic focus on material by Wharton and her contemporaries.

"We really want to do these plays the way we used to do them [at Shakespeare & Company] at The Mount and Springlawn (a Berkshire cottage on Kemble Street, near the current Shakespeare & Company campus)," Burnet said.

"It's fun to travel back in time with Edith."

With Berkshires actor David Joseph joining May, Prusha and Schwager in the cast — he appears in both plays — and veteran director Normi Noël at the helm, Burnet says he has his "dream team" back together.

This is not an exercise in nostalgia. May and Prusha share a belief that Wharton's writing, especially these two pieces, are as timely now — perhaps more so — than when they first were performed at The Mount; indeed, when the stories were published in 1908 ("Les Metteurs en Scene") and 1934 ("Roman Fever").

"If you have a good writer examining the human condition, that never changes," May said.

"'The Promise' talks about the awful power of money," Prusha said.

"(In 'Roman Fever'), Alida and Grace are looking out at a civilization that's fallen, that's in ruins, contrasted with a civilization that is falling," May said.

"This is a play about change; who adapts to change and who doesn't; how one adapts to change. This play couldn't be more fresh."

What strikes May in particular about Wharton is that "she never pulled her punches.

"She never followed the dictum of her time that women had to be nice or polite," May said. "She was surgical; her writing so beautifully observed that she couldn't be dismissed. I would hate to have gotten on her bad side."

Coming back to "Roman Fever" after having been so long away, Prusha says Noël and she have been amazed at just how much has grown over time; how much deeper May and Prusha are going in rehearsal.

May acknowledged that going into the project, there might a sense of facile ease at picking up familiar material. Not so. Nothing in the notes she made in the margins of her script the first time through still applied.

"Diane and I both look at this material from where we are now," May said. "It's what we do as actors. We change and grow. These characters are complex. Their relationship is complex. There are layers upon layers. It is such a relief to see that what's happening now in rehearsal is new, not repetition."

Prusha says Noël's directing style has a lot to do with "opening up" the process by which her actors can get deep beneath the skin of their respective characters.

"Normi is quiet and reflective. Her work is powerful," May said.

"It's all about the journey of our characters and our journey as actresses," Prusha said.

"There are bonds we have forged," May said. "No matter how often we work together it never gets complacent. We're going into the truth of human relationships."

ON STAGE

What: "The Promise" and "Roman Fever." Adapted for the stage by Dennis Krausnick from the Edith Wharton short stories "Les Metteurs en Scene" and "Roman Fever." Directed by Normi Noel

Who: Pythagoras Theatre Works

When: Thursday through Aug. 5. Evenings — Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Aug. 2 through 5 at 7. Matinee — Sunday morning at 11

Where: 1854 Town Hall, 9 Main Street, West Stockbridge

Tickets: $30; students with ID $25; active service military and children under 12 — free

How: Brown Paper Tickets — online at brownpapertickets.com/event/2579507 or by phone at 800-838-3006

Additional information: 413-344-3338; PythagorasTheatre.org


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