“The persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies, and the fact that he and she understood each other without a word seemed to the young man to bring them nearer than any explanation would have done,” wrote Edith Wharton in her 1920 novel, “The Age of Innocence.”
The novel takes place, mostly, in “old society” circles of New York City in the 1870s. It’s a world — in Wharton’s view, at least — in which all kinds of thoughts and feelings are kept bottled up, out of social convention. Members of this elite circle are rarely apt to show — let alone talk about — what’s really going on in their hearts and minds. A great deal is communicated through subtle inflection changes and tiny gestures. Paradoxically, you’ve to pay attention closely to what is not being said, to know what’s going on.
In other words, this novel — which made Wharton the first female Pulitzer Prize winner in the fiction category — is not easily adapted for the stage or the screen, though some have tried. Most famously, perhaps, Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film version with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder received mostly positive reviews and did modestly well at the box office.
A new adaptation — written by Douglas McGrath, with direction by Doug Hughes — is currently playing at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton. And it’s a good one, reflecting Wharton’s ability to create layers of deep emotional resonance in what is, essentially, a pretty simple love story. The play was developed by the McCarter in association with Hartford Stage, which debuted it in April.
Early in the play, Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), a handsome young lawyer, proposes to the beautiful, unjaded May Welland (Helen Cespedes), who happily accepts. It seems like a glorious union. But their potential marriage is threatened by Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), May’s cousin, who is slightly older and much more worldly than her — and scandalously separated from her own husband, whom she has left back in Poland.
Since Archer is a lawyer, he is drafted to help her with the possible divorce (and persuade her not to go through with it, to save the family from disgrace). They talk, they flirt … and he finds himself falling madly in love with her, even though she’s still married, and he’s engaged to someone else.
She’s smitten, too, though she can’t bring herself to betray her cousin. Yet Archer grows ever more obsessed with her …
I won’t say more about how this turns out, for those who may not have read the book or seen the movie. I do want to mention, though, that McGrath adds a new element via a character identified in the program as The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines). He’s Newland, as a charming old man, and he narrates and hovers around the action, like a ghost — serving as a kind of stoic witness as the most wrenching chapter of his life is replayed, before his eyes.
It’s all a bit subdued — though that’s appropriate for the world Wharton chronicled — but it culminates in a satisfyingly emotional final scene. Among the supporting cast, Darrie Lawrence is the standout as the sharp-tongued, pretension-puncturing Mrs. Manson Mingott, who shows up briefly from time to time and offers some comic relief.
McGrath and Hughes make a smart choice in having a pianist (Yan Li) onstage throughout the play, providing a kind of elegant soundtrack to the action. Linda Cho’s costumes and John Lee Beatty’s scenic design radiate tasteful opulence, and the actors move around the stage with a sense of carefully choreographed precision.
It all creates the sense of an intricate, slow-moving dance. The Old Gentleman watches as the characters play their assigned roles in the sometimes-stifling world they live in — and try to latch onto a bit of socially acceptable happiness along the way. The action is occasionally sentimental, or satirical. But mostly just bittersweet.
“The Age of Innocence” will be presented at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Oct. 7. Visit mccarter.org.