Edith Wharton meets Martha Graham

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LENOX — The storied, scandalous lives of celebrated author, Edith Wharton, her husband Teddy and lover Morton Fullerton have proven fertile fodder for playwright Sara Farrington, who returns to the Mount for a presentation of "Leisure & Lust," directed by Marina McClure and staged in the very rooms Wharton lived in at her beloved Lenox home.

Inspired by these personalities, along with the writing style and characters of Wharton's creative output, Farrington's play takes a psychological journey through the struggles of affluence and poverty in 1907 New York. In a nonlinear narrative, the two women and two men in the cast jump around in time to events of days and decades before.

The first act, "Leisure," opens with wealthy Grace Hunter in mourning for her husband Harry's suicide. "Lust" explains the tragedy in a story of what motivated him.

"Grace plays out everything she should or could have done," Farrington explained. "There's a lot of ruminating in the architecture of the heart."

The audience goes through the journey with her, added McClure. "Harry is losing his grip on reality, and they find themselves in a knot in time that gets untangled along the way."

Farrington gives Grace attributes found in Wharton's novels: "her obsession with romance, the bigness of feeling," and places her in her boudoir. "You're sort of a voyeur, and see into her personal life and space."

As for Harry, in real life "all we know about Teddy was that he was bipolar, and back then no one had any idea what that was."

The play draws on characters from Wharton's novels "House of Mirth" and "The Age of Innocence."

"I treat literature like a palette," Farrington said, "taking ideas and little details and brushing them into my work. The [imagined] love triangle is inspired by motivators I read about in those real life people."

"How [Wharton] dealt with the novel form is how I like to deal with playwriting. It is a confessional in the guise of characters and different time periods. You can tell your own stories, sneak in little secrets. They don't emerge like an iceberg, they creep around like a vine, biographical parallels [that] are always there."

Friday's performance is in the drawing room, followed by a talkback and champagne toast reception to honor Wharton's Jan. 24 birthday. Saturday relocates to Wharton's bedroom and boudoir, which accommodates a 16-person audience for an immersive experience.

McClure's challenge was to create two different stagings, "one more traditional and one more environmental, where the audience is involved in the action just based on where they're sitting."

"We use the architecture of the spaces so it feels like an installation," she said. "What's thrilling is the tension between this modern play and the authentic home setting."

The class, gender opportunities and mental illness themes are the same in 2017 as 1907, she noted. "The play is about how we deal with these issues, then and now. It's the story of America, how class and social economic issues are woven in."

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In 2015, "Leisure" received a workshop performance at The Mount after executive director Susan Wissler learned of the project.

"Whenever I hear of a playwright experimenting with Wharton we try very actively to develop relationships," Wissler said. "Every year one to five scripts cross my desk. Reading plays is a personal passion."

She described "Leisure & Lust" as provocative, raw, tough and gritty — and not always pretty. "It's very physical and theatrical, with body stances and postures used as punctuation points. It reminded me of Edith Wharton meets Martha Graham."

"It's heartening that today's artists still use Wharton's works as a springboard for new material, it speaks to the timelessness of everything she was writing about."

"While it's not biographical, it looks at social change from a variety of perspectives."

There is a third perspective yet to be told, she noted. "I hope very much they'll return once that's finished as well."

With all the drama in the character's lives, Farrington is quick to note the play is also funny. It's told from her imagination with dramatic license, she said, and not the history of her characters. After all, she always writes by the maxim "you never sacrifice a story for the truth."

ON STAGE

What: "Leisure & Lust" by Sara Farrington. Directed by Marina McClure

With: Gabriella Rhodeen, Stephanie Regina, Michael Aurelio & Kyle Stockburger

Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox

When: Friday evening at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 28 @ 11 a.m., 2 p.m. 5 p.m.

Tickets: $75 Friday ( includes talkback & reception); $25 Saturday (sold out, call for cancellations)

How: edithwharton.org; (413) 551-5100


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