'Age Of Innocence' Love Story Drives Hartford Stage Adaptation

Edith Wharton’s novel “The Age of Innocence” exquisitely evokes the rarified realm of upper-class New York society in the 1870s.

Playwright Douglas McGrath and director Doug Hughes won’t let you forget, however, that this grand social satire is also a great, tender love story.

A new stage adaptation of “The Age of Innocence” premieres April 5 through May 6 at Hartford Stage. The production then moves to the McCarter Theater Center in New Jersey, where it will open that theater’s 2018-19 season in September.

“For me,” Hughes says during a recent phone interview, “everything in this play radiates out of a fundamental and enormous question in our lives, if we’re lucky enough to love. The question is: Who will we love, and how will we love them?

“There are issues of steadfastness, sacrifice, endurance … All these are alive in the love triangle that is the nuclear core of this story. That is what led Doug [McGrath] when he did his adaptation.”

McGrath, in a separate phone interview the same day, says “the other stuff is all icing, and I love all that other stuff. But the heart of that book is the heart-rending dilemma. It’s a timeless dilemma that asks, is it ever wrong to love someone?”

The Hartford Stage production stars four-time Tony winning actor Boyd Gaines as Newland Archer, a well-heeled gentleman who, just as he is ready to happily marry May Welland (played by Helen Cespedes), becomes infatuated with May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (played by Broadway musical theater star Sierra Boggess).

Hughes worked previously with Gaines in a production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” and with Cespedes in a staged reading of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo,” both in New York. Hughes regularly directs on Broadway, most recently helming the Ayad Akhtar drama “Junk.” He is also supremely comfortable in the Connecticut regional theater realm. Hughes is on an extremely short list of those who’ve directed shows at Hartford Stage, Yale Repertory Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse. He was the artistic director of Long Wharf from 1997 to 2001.

“I welcomed the chance to work with Doug and Darko,” Hughes says, referring to McGrath and current Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak. “It came at a good time for me. I’ve had very good experiences working outside of New York. I’m delighted to be back. The Hartford Stage Company is so wonderfully equipped to realize this production.”

Would Hughes want to run a regional theater again? “I always thought it was a great thing to do in life. I think that answer falls into the ‘Never say never’ category.”

Shortly after “The Age of Innocence” opens at Hartford Stage, Hughes heads into rehearsals for Anthony Giardina’s new play “Dan Cody’s Yacht” at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

Hughes calls “The Age of Innocence” “one of the greatest American novels. I’d put it alongside ‘The Great Gatsby.’ It’s set in the world of New York society in the 1870s, so there’s a code of that society. The code further pressurizes the situation. There are social forces at work.

“To have been Edith Wharton must have been thrillingly difficult. She observed everything, including what furniture was in the room. She is an incredibly omniscient narrator. This is a satire of the world she grew up in. But all that is in service to the love story. I think this is a very emotional work, not a heady analysis of the dilemma of manners in society. That’s in there, but what’s central is: What path with Newland Archer take?”

Hughes describes the production as being on a “rather open stage” (the scenic design is by prolific Broadway designer John Lee Beatty) defined by ballroom chairs and a piano.

There is “quite precise period dress,” Hughes says. The costume design is by Linda Cho, whose previous Hartford Stage credits include “Anastasia, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Twelfth Night” and “The Whipping Man.” But the directors insist that “this is not about which is the proper fish fork, or the proper button on your sleeve.”

The show’s single, open-ended stage set, McGrath says, was Hughes’ idea.

“We did a reading, and Doug said: ‘It flies by so quickly, we don’t want to slow it down with scene changes. The beautiful set that John Lee Beatty has done is like a conservatory that suggests everything.”

McGrath adds that “we have added a song in the show, a beautiful moment. It was popular at that time for people to play music in their parlors.”

McGrath wrote the book for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and co-wrote the screenplay for the Woody Allen movie “Bullets Over Broadway.” He was a writer during the turbulent 1980-81 season of “Saturday Night Live.” He’s also directed half a dozen movies, including his own adaptations of Jane Austen’s “Emma” and Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby.” When asked if he’d thought about directing “The Age of Innocence” himself, McGrath touches on key differences between stage and film.

“I don’t know why it’s different from a movie, but there’s this constant process of readjusting to the space, the actors and the audience. In my films, the script is done; I never rewrite whole scenes.”

“The Age of Innocence,” its adapter suggests, “has so much to say to people. She’s really brilliant, Wharton is — I think she’s fiendish as a psychologist. She’s wonderful in her ability to describe every aspect of a situation. These are real, complex people.”

As for the tricky art of adapting famous literature for another medium, McGrath explains that “you read a book over many days. It’s an experience that’s not meant for one exposure. An author has to repeat many themes. In a book, everything looks wonderful. But in a play or movie, you have to compress it. You have to look for the emotional center of it. You can’t really have a fidelity to the text. You identify the heart of the story, and find what is relevant to human life now.”

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Douglas McGrath (based on the novel by Edith Wharton), directed by Doug Hughes, runs April 5 through May 6 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with added 2 p.m. matinees on April 14, 18 and 28 and May 5; and Sunday evening performances on April 8 and 22. Tickets are $25 to $90. 860-527-5151 and hartfordstage.org.

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