Lookingglass Theatre’s “Ethan Frome”
Back in December I took my husband to see Lookingglass Theatre’s production of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” for his birthday. While there, we noticed they would be staging Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” in the coming months. So, it seemed only appropriate when my husband presented me with an early birthday present – tickets to the show.
Having just finished reading the novel for the first time days earlier, it was wonderful to see the characters I’d grown familiar with brought to life on stage. Lookingglass is a company known for their mastery of physical work, so to see them tackle a piece like this – where no one flies, nothing is magical, and there really isn’t a lot of hope – was an intriguing concept.
The result is a seamless 90-minute piece of captivating theater. Ensemble member Laura Eason has taken Wharton’s short novel and given it legs to walk around on. Though the book is short on dialogue, Eason filled in the gaps to create complete scenes where characters can be fully developed and grow.
“Ethan Frome,” is a love story at it’s core – and Philip R. Smith (in the title role) and Louise Lamson (as Mattie Silver) practically tingle with the excitement of their characters falling in love despite all odds – and Ethan’s sickly wife Zeena, who lives in the same house. Smith delivers a solid, quiet performance as a simple man who wants something more than a simple life, while Lamson is all bright eyes and sparkle as the younger woman who brings him back to life. In the challenging role of Zeena, Lisa Tejero manages to humanize a character that would be all to easy to play as a hypochondriac shrew.
One of Eason’s smartest moves in adapting the piece is to keep the voice of the unnamed narrator from the original novel. In the original work, a man comes to the town Ethan Frome lives in, catches sight of the old and crippled man, and becomes fascinated by his tale – so he pieces together what must have happened. Eason gave this character a name – Henry Morton – and cast Andrew White to tell the story playing out before our eyes. White is likable, somber, and a narrator smart enough to disappear into plain sight when it’s called for.
There’s nothing spectacular about Daniel Ostling’s set for this production, which is exactly how it should be. The Frome house is two-level, and essentially a frame in which the actors can work. A few pieces come apart and move, and things wheel on and off the stage as needed. It’s minimalist, and it works. This is a piece about people rather than pizazz.
Of course, being Lookingglass, there are some notable touches of “magic.” The climactic sledding scene is done without the aid of any sled at all, but is beautiful and chilling to watch – largely thanks to Christine Binder’s lighting design, which gives the impression of a strobe light without resorting to one.
“Ethan Frome” runs until April 23rd. If you’re interested in how classic pieces of literature can translate to the stage, check this one out. They don’t get much better.