In the novel Ethan Frome, descriptions of physical landscapes tend to do the heavy lifting in conveying the characters’ emotional terrain. It’s not accidental that the fictional locale in Edith Wharton’s 100-year-old book is named “Starkfield.”
That has to be challenging for anyone trying to translate the material into theatrical terms, and Laura Eason’s adaptation for Lookingglass Theatre (which she also directs) doesn’t fully succeed. The unconsummated love between Ethan and Mattie Silver, the orphaned and penniless cousin of Ethan’s peevish and hypochondriacal wife, Zeena, certainly never rises to the feverish illicit passion of, say, Abbie and Eben in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel the frisson of longing between the two.
Though Eason creates dialogue for the would-be lovers that’s not found in the original, there isn’t enough sense of danger in their veiled discussions. When Louise Lamson’s Mattie talks about the beauty of flowers—the one thing she’s learned a lot about in her stunted education—it comes across as nothing more than a reminder that Mattie is a rare spot of beauty in Ethan’s gray world, which we’ve already figured out (thanks in part to Mattie’s red scarf, which enlivens the gray color scheme of the play). The sexual connotations of Mattie’s own floral core unfolding in Ethan’s presence (to his credit, Philip Smith makes Ethan a profoundly sympathetic character, though one of few words) feel buried under the glacial sadness permeating nearly every moment of the play. It may be quite true to the original, but neither Eason’s script nor her staging (with a couple of notable exceptions) create strong enough nuances to flesh out the characters’ visceral and vital decisions.
As Wharton observed of the novel in her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance, “Emily Bronte would have found as savage tragedies in our remoter valleys as on her Yorkshire moors.” (Wharton lived for a time in Lenox, Massachusetts, and had a wealthy voyeur’s view of the grimmer aspects of life in the Berkshires.) Certainly, one can argue that the savagery in Ethan Frome lies under the surface—any story where a broken pickle dish serves as the final symbol of dashed hopes isn’t aiming for Verdi-esque levels of melodrama. But thwarted souls don’t have to be colorless ones.
Another central problem not fully resolved in Eason’s script is the role of the narrator. Nameless in the novel, Eason gives him the moniker “Henry Morton,” but the name alone doesn’t lend him a compelling shape. In the book, the narrator spins his version of Ethan’s story from threads picked up from townsfolk, and from a visit to the home, inhabited 24 years after the novel’s central events, by Ethan, Zeena, and a crippled and querulous Mattie, who has taken her place in a line of broken and demanding women who have sapped Ethan’s lifeblood.
But in Eason’s version, Henry Morton (played by Andrew White) mostly delivers some of the more pungent snippets from Wharton’s book without context (observing that Zeena’s catalog of ailments “made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances”) and moves the set around with the help of Erik Lochtefeld, who also plays a gallery of Starkfield’s comic-relief supporting characters. The narrator’s own florid imaginings about Ethan in the book stand in stark contrast to the fraught silences permeating the Frome home. But he’s literally sidelined here.
The show works best in capturing small moments: Ethan grazing Mattie’s cheek, the sexual sublimation as the two fold a tablecloth on the one night they have alone together. That evening is also fittingly staged thanks to a simple but hugely effective component of the set. As they dine together (the ill-fated pickle dish a splash of symbolic red between them), the platform containing the kitchen set detaches from the rest of scenic designer Daniel Ostling’s metallic-gray skeletal outline of the house, providing Ethan and Mattie a moment in which they can look at the stars they both love and pretend their lives aren’t as bleak and predetermined as they actually are. And when that same platform whirls during their final act of desperation, we feel their exhilaration and despair.
But too often, the play leaves us feeling that we, like Ethan spying on Mattie at a town dance, are trapped behind a frosty pane, with the real light and life of the story happening somewhere just out of reach. v
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