Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 19, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, The Age of Innocence

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through May 6, 2018
by Shera Cohen

“The Age of Innocence” becomes a painting of the beautifully stunning New York City at the turn of the last century. Life was slower, pretense was ever-present, and the class-system was dictate. We see characters walk through their perfectly steadfast  stations in time, exquisitely designed because no less would suffice. These people are the nouveau riche. The story depicts a love triangle, with weak Newland at the center, bookended by sweet fiancé May and scandalous cousin Ellen. It is important to know that “scandal” of 1920 meant outcast and scorned for behaving in ways that are different from the norm. Ellen is a woman about to be divorced – hardly of any consequence by today’s standards.

Photo By T. Charles Erickson
The story is told with the advantage of hindsight. Boyd Gaines (The Old Gentleman, aka Newland’s older and wiser self) portrays the most believable character. He speaks directly to the audience. Gaines’ subtle movements on stage often mirror those of actor Andrew Veenstra’s young Newland. We see and hear the anguish of the love-tortured man through Gaines’ character’s retrospect. It is a stretch to compare Gaines to Veenstra, especially physically. While Veenstra displays acting skill and might be excellent in another play, he is miscast in “Innocence” – a primary reason being his seemingly boyish age.

Sierra Boggess presents a sophisticated warmth and sensitivity to Ellen as a woman put in an unenviable position by the mores of the time. Boggess is given the opportunity, albeit short, to sing in her lush soprano voice.

While most audience members may count Helen Cespedes in a supporting actor category, she gives May a demure and dull façade while simultaneously determined and wily. Cespedes successfully creates an unassuming girl turned woman in a flash.

Director Doug Hughes and Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty have shaped an extraordinary backdrop for the characters. The set is elegant, at the same time uncluttered so that the comings and goings of those onstage is smooth and clear. Linda Cho’s costumes could (should) win awards. All actors (female and male) are bedecked extravagantly as becoming the era and class. Yet, perhaps extraordinary, extravagant, and exquisite can be a bit overpowering. In the case of “The Age of Innocence,” the trappings sometimes distract from the characters and the actors’ talents.

Edith Wharton, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Age of Innocence” would feel at home watching Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of her work. My guess is that McGrath’s task of condensing this classic dramatic story into an hour and forty-minute play was extremely difficult. Kudos to him.