Edith Wharton makes a welcome return to Shakespeare & Company

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LENOX — There is a kind of comfort-food-with-class feeling about "The Wharton Comedies" at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre and I mean that in the very best sense.

Dennis Krausnick's artful Edith Wharton adaptations were so much a part of Shakespeare & Company's life in the parlor of Dame Edith's home at The Mount and then again at Springlawn, the Berkshire cottage at Shakespeare & Company's Kemble Street property before that portion of the land was sold.

It's not simply the homecoming-comfort of being in the company of the often-produced "Roman Fever," the first half of this bill, and a new adaptation, "The Fullness of Life," based on an early Wharton short story.

There are familiar Wharton faces on stage — Corinna May and Diane Prusha and David Joseph — and familiar Wharton directorial hands in Normi Noel. The results are precisely what you would expect from such a skillful team.

Published in 1893, "The Fullness of Life" is, at once, so unlike Wharton and so unmistakably Wharton. Pinch-hitting for the salons and parlors of American nouveau riche in New York and Europe is the afterlife, to which a female known only as Woman (Diane Prusha) has arrived after a gentle passing. She emerges into a Titian-like setting, far removed from the middle class surroundings she has known, where a spirit (Corinna May) welcomes her. Her role is to settle, for all eternity, newcomers in surroundings that will best suit them.

Dressed in a beige topcoat, wearing a hat and clutching a Victorian travel bag, this Woman, in re4sponse to gentle questioning from Spirit, acknowledges that she has never known "that fullness of life which we all feel ourselves capable of knowing; though my life has not been without scattered hints of it, like the scent of earth which comes to one sometimes far out at sea."

Nor has she ever been more than "fond" of her husband. Likening her woman's nature to "a great house filled with many rooms," she says her husband — whose boots creaked, who loved reading railway novels and the sporting ads in the newspapers and who slammed doors behind him whenever he left a room — not only was perfectly happy in the family sitting room, "where the members of the family come and go as they list ... he was quite content to remain there," she tells the spirit.

And so, to provide in eternity the fullness that had eluded Woman in life, the soul whose footsteps never came, Spirit produces Man (David Joseph, who also adroitly plays an Italian waiter in the opening "Roman Fever"). He is perfection intellectually, culturally, emotionally, physically; flawless, unblemished; the male equivalent of a Barbie doll only with intellect. He has been selected as Woman's meant-to-be soul for all eternity. And yet ...

You feel in Prusha's endearing Woman the pull between her eagerness to embrace in the afterlife all that she has missed in life. The decision she makes is touching and affecting.

Grace Ansley, Prusha's character in "Roman Fever," stands on different ground. Prusha's Grace sits at a table at a cafe on a terrace overlooking the Coliseum in Rome, the empty cups of tea service nearby, a knitting stolidly while her daughter, Barbara, and Jenny, the daughter of a long-time friend and frequent traveling companion, Alida Slade, are off on an adventure with two young men. Emboldened by the wine that has replaced her tea, Alida sets about to finish the unfinished business that has existed for years, between these two. Alida and her husband have moved up in the social strata since their days of living across the street from the more modest Ansleys on New York's Upper East Side.

"I have everything I need," May's Alida says with triumph and smugness; as much to convince herself as to lord it over the plainer, aptly named Grace.

She clings to that assertion as if it were a lifeline. But like a lob in tennis, she sets herself up for a return she never sees coming.

As she does with "The Fullness of Life," Noel approaches "Roman Fever" with a deft, savvy hand and a keen appreciation of Wharton's subtlety and nuance.

The satisfaction in "The Wharton Comedies" is watching three master theater artists apply their craft at the effect of a master writer, Wharton, and her two masterly representatives — Krausnick and Noel. They all serve Wharton remarkably well; giving us, in this life, the fullness of theater in only just over an hour and a half.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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