Edith Wharton's ‘Summer' comes home

Thursday August 26, 2010

LENOX -- It's the summer of "Summer" at the Mount, and Wharton Salon theater director Catherine Taylor-Williams has brought Edith Wharton's steamy romantic novella to the stage at the author's storied Lenox estate.

Set in the Berkshires in 1890, Wharton wrote "Summer" (which she referred to as the "hot Ethan") in France in 1917 as a counterpart to the earlier, better known "Ethan Frome," once titled "Winter." It tells of the passionate affair of a young woman, Charity Royall, with a handsome young man above her class, over the course of a relentlessly hot summer.

Fending off unwelcome marriage intentions from her guardian, she finds herself competing for her lover with a more "suitable" match and embarks on a journey to come to terms with her new situation -- and herself.

On a steamy August afternoon under a welcoming shade tree by the Mount's Stables Auditorium theater, Taylor-Williams and actors Diane Prusha and Alyssa Hughlett took time from rehearsals to talk about the production, part of the Wharton Salon's second year.

"I was very attracted to the story," said Taylor-Williams. "It's about passion, about forgiveness and growing up. It's got beautiful exposition and poetic descriptions of the Berkshires."

"[Wharton] tells of the blossoming and coming of age, the opening of the sexuality and sensuality of a young woman through nature that is just exquisite," added Prusha. "It's like poetry, and it's so real."

The stage adaptation is one of many that Dennis Krausnick (husband of Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer) wrote for Shakespeare & Company while the troupe's tenure at The Mount.

"It's one of Dennis's best adaptations," Taylor-Williams said. "He was able to capture Edith's voice in a unique way."

While the Wharton Salon marks a new era of theatrical collaboration at the Mount, it brings back many longtime Shakespeare & Company members such as Taylor-Williams and Prusha, whose daughter Rory Hammond was raised at the site and now appears alongside her in "Summer."

Rory's father is fellow Shakespeare & Company actor Michael Hammond.

"For me, having been here the first time, I see it as a coming home," said Prusha, who plays several pivotal roles in the production. "I love doing Edith's work and keeping it alive.

"I feel like I grew up here. I first came here when I was 23 -- I've been here for most of my adult life."

In contrast, both the experience and Wharton's story are new to Alyssa Hughlett, who plays the principal character, Charity. Originally from Texas, Hughlett captures the rebellious, restless nature of a young Berkshire girl unhappy with her lot and locale.

"I feel I'm actually being given the chance to blossom into Wharton," she said. "It's a story that is very familiar of how I grew up and how many young women grew up."

Adam Gauger, Reilly Hadden, Miles Herter and Robert Serrell also appear, with live violin music composed and performed by Alexander Sovronsky. Carl Sprague, who is adapting "Summer" as a screenplay, designed the sets, and Arthur Oliver created the costumes.

Last year's inaugural Wharton Salon sold-out staging of "Xingu" in the Drawing Room of the main residence got the company, and Taylor-Williams' directing career, off to a rousing start -- much to the delight of The Mount's executive director, Susan Wissler.

"It was a step forward and a real addition to bring Wharton's work back in a theater piece to the Mount," said Wissler. "In Catherine and her group we have found the perfect collaborator.

"The public response to it has been very warm and very positive, and it's just one more way that we can honor Wharton that has life and breath to it."

Compared to last year's comedy, this year's selection offers a more thoughtful and intense look at both the joys and the social, economic and moral constraints affecting young love, combined with an unblinking look at the realities -- and consequences -- of unfettered passion.

"It was something that seemed in my mind to belong here at the Mount," said Taylor-Williams, "first and foremost as a way of introducing people who may not know Wharton's work to her stories so that it expands the meaning of what being here is all about."


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