Two women are sitting at an outdoor table at the cool end of a hot day in Rome. They are looking out at the ruins of the Roman forum, and they have known each other since they were teenagers. On another ridge, another woman is thinking with longing and fear of a canto of Dante’s Inferno — where an ocean of souls are condemned never to die because they chose to live as cowards.
All three women are looking back across their lives in two short stories Edith Wharton wrote at the poles of her own life: The Fullness of Life when she was just beginning to see her work in print, and Roman Fever three years before she died.
Shakespeare & Company will perform them both together as The Wharton Comedies through Sept. 10. In its 40th year, the company is looking back to a tradition that began in its first summer. When it was newly formed, the young Company performed and lived at The Mount, the house where Wharton wrote the novels that made her name.
Since 1978, founding member Dennis Krausnick has adapted at least a dozen of Wharton’s short stories and five novels for the stage, and Shakespeare & Company began performing them in Wharton’s drawing room.
“Performing her words in the house where she wrote them has an incredible resonance,” he said.
This summer Krausnick has adapted a new story to pair with an old favorite in its Elayne Bernstein Theatre in Lenox. Company actor Corinna May suggested The Fullness of Life, a story known for Wharton’s comparison of a mind and a home: “I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms … and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
The woman at the center of the play has lived for years with a husband who does not understand her. He finds nothing to see in a place where beauty moves her to shaking.
“His boots creaked,” she says, “and he always slammed the door when he went out. And he never read anything but railway novels. And the sporting advertisements in the papers.”
She sees a disconnect between them, and her husband imagines a connection. Now, at the end of her life, she has a choice: to make a new and intimate connection with someone else, or to wait for her husband and try again.
She has thought about music and poetry, sunset light and the scent of carnations. She has intensely wanted someone to talk to. But the actors do not see her choice as a simple one.
“There are simple things she hasn’t thought about,” said David Joseph, who plays both the soulmate and the husband she has to choose between. “What home means …. She has thought of beautiful paintings. She has no idea what she thinks, feels or desires.”
Years later, Wharton called the story “one long shriek,” said May, who plays a spirit offering guidance.
“It makes me wonder what was she shrieking about, and what doesn’t she want us to know. I think she felt it revealed too much.”
“I think it’s the first time she put down on paper the idea that marriage might not work,” Krausnick said.
In her social circle, he said, that idea was unthinkable. Wharton was 31 when she wrote The Fullness of Life, four years before she built The Mount and began another unthinkable activity — writing novels.
“Most of her family never acknowledged that she was a writer at all,” he said. “She was out there alone.”
Her writing opened lifelong friendships for her, and it would sustain her when she divorced her husband in 1913, in the face of intense social pressure.
But in 1893, the woman in the inner room is still sitting alone, and the actors find her thoughts elusive.
“There’s no solid ground,” said director Normi Noel. “As we all work on it together, we’re coming in with guts raw, emotional life and brains firing.”
She came to the story, she said, wondering, “if a woman is sitting in her soul, doesn’t she have a responsibility to open the door herself?”
The woman and her soul mate seem to share thoughts, said Diane Prusha, who plays her. She has never shared her inner room, and his nearness troubles her.
“I want one part of me that no one else has access to, that is mine and mine alone,” May said. “… There is no person who completes you. You are dishonoring the person you love if you expect them to be perfect.”
Noel turned over questions of connection, courage or cowardice.
“I see Diane’s — not regret but deep surprise at one point when the spirit says ‘your husband imagined that he had found his soul’s mate on earth — in you, and for such delusions, eternity itself contains no cure.’
“That experience I know,” Noel said, “having someone say I have always loved you and feeling shocked, knowing I was loved and had loved.”
Watching the actors is a gift, she said, as they work their way toward a choice that will mean turning away from at least one man, whether or not it means turning to one.
“Did I do that to someone?” Noel considered the dilemma quietly. “Was I so frightened that I could not open myself to loving someone as they were loving me?”
In the photo at top, Corinna May appears in the Wharton Plays as the Spirit in The Fullness of Life and as Alida in Roman Fever. Photo by Olivia Winslow, courtesy of Shakespeare & Company. This story first ran in the Berkshire eagle’s Arts & Entertainment section. My thanks to Jeffrey Borak.
What: The Wharton comedies
Where: Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Aug. 17 to Sept. 10
Admission: $19 to $44
Information: 413-637-3353, shakespeare.org