Wharton Salon and Pythagoras Theatre Works bring stories to life at The Mount

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LENOX >> In a photo from the early 1900s, taken at dusk just after a rain, people walk in the streets of New York.

Someone looking at the street and imagining their lives might follow one story line or another, said Michael Burnet, producing artistic director of Pythagoras Theatre Works.

In a shabby one-room tenement, a proud woman tells an impossible story about a painting she needs to sell.

At a breakfast table, two tired middle-aged men face each other for the first time since their ambitious college years.

And on gray day, just after Thanksgiving, a woman takes a chance that could make her life or break it.

"It felt right," said Catherine Taylor-Williams, producing artistic director of the Wharton Salon. On Thanksgiving week, the Wharton Salon will return to The Mount and welcome Pythagoras to perform adaptations of two of Edith Wharton's short stories in her drawing room.

In "The Long Run," a man returning to New York after many years abroad, runs into an old college friend and a woman they once both knew and uncovers a long-held secret. In "The Rembrandt," the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is asked to value a dubious painting, the last valuable possession of a once-wealthy woman, now ill and alone, and hoping it will bring her enough to live on.

Wharton deals in deep-down absolute truths the world is unwilling to deal with, said Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, director of "The Long Run," as the cast spoke before a rehearsal.

Taylor-Williams said she and John Hadden, adaptor of and an actor in "The Long Run," have been looking at this story for two years. The Wharton Salon's performances of Wharton's stories follow on a long tradition of Shakespeare & Company adaptations of Wharton, from the days when the Lenox theatre company actors lived and performed at The Mount. Jason Asprey, who grew up in the company, has come back to act in the house where he lived as a boy and skateboarded down the hallways.

In recent performances, the Wharton Salon has revived many of those earlier plays, but as the Salon has grown, Taylor-Williams has read some 40 Wharton short stories, looking for new material.

"This one broke my heart," she said.

In it, a man and a woman have one chance to change their lives — if they have courage to take the risk.

In a society where everything is agreed upon, said Corinna May, Penelope in "The Long Run," honesty can mean excommunication.

Borthwick-Leslie compared the backlash to the kind of anger women face on the Internet today simply for speaking as professionals — women who receive death threats in public comments. Merrick, in "The Long Run," fears this kind of viciousness, he said.

And Wharton wants to awaken a longing for more than that, May responded.

Wharton wrote "The Long Run" soon after her own affair with Morton Fullerton. The themes of love, nostalgia, memory and pain she would bring out in her novel "Age of Innocence" resonate here, Taylor-Williams said.

"Not just the themes," Borthwick-Leslie agreed. "Biographical details."

May has re-read Wharton's published letters to Fullerton, and she finds in them the same clear-headed passionate appeal she finds in Penelope's arguments to Merrick.

"[Wharton's] direct with her feelings," she said. "She goes into agony, and she goes into ecstasy. It's a common theme for her, a woman having a voice — and not having a voice. If a woman tries to do as she pleases, she gets annihilated."

But, after Wharton began to rebel, after her affair with Fullerton and the end of her marriage, the women she wrote began to change, May said.

"The more freedom she finds, the more she allows her women to find or to hope for," she said.

Penelope does get to speak her truth, she said, and in Penelope she feels enormous courage.

"[Wharton] is being honest in her writing," she said. "... Extraodinary, poetic, precise images — right to the bone. She may not have betrayed much publicly, but in her writing her heart is wide-open."

"The Long Run" faces two chances for openness. In the present, Merrick, showing his old friend, Ames, a collection of essays, presses hard for honest criticism. He seems to have lost his writing when he turned his back on intimacy. Now, Wharton may have given him a chance to get his soul back, as Asprey said, by telling the truth.

"That's also her struggle," Borthwick-Leslie said.

A character, whose writing has soured because of a choice he made, echoes Wharton's experience and her long struggle to gain confidence in her work, to leave her husband and find a new life in France.

"Her writing life thrives when she gets the hell out," Hadden said.

Borthwick-Leslie smiled.

"And I like to think," he said, "she was writing this story as she made that decision."

If you go ...

What: Wharton Salon presents 'The Long Run' and Pythagoras Theatre Works presents 'The Rembrandt' by Edith Wharton

Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, Nov. 26, 28 and 29, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 30.

Admission: $35

Information: whartonsalon.org


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