The leisure-class clash in Autres Temps, the Wharton Salon’s third annual production at the Mount, has been given an effectively timely update. First published in Century magazine exactly 100 years ago this August, Edith Wharton’s short story “Other Times, Other Manners” has been set by Wharton Salon director Catherine Taylor-Williams in 1962, at the cusp of that pivitol Mad Men era. Adapted for stage by Shakespeare & Company stalwart Dennis Krausnick, this 62-minute one-act fills the intimate Stables Auditorium on the grounds of the Mount, much as Shakespeare & Company’s Wharton Series did in the Mount’s salon overlooking the terrace shrubbery two decades ago.
Autres Temps focuses on shunned divorcee Mrs. Lidcote (the perfectly cast Diane Prusha) who returns hurriedly to New York society and their summer Berkshire playland after a two-decade European exile to be with her daughter, Leila (an icy Rory Hammond), in her hour of need after her own divorce. Only society doesn’t shun divorcees any longer, Mrs. Lidcote discovers, and Leila’s hour of need hinges not on her own divorce and remarriage, but on her mother’s.
Taylor-Williams keeps her five-actor cast focused and subtle with Pinteresque poise and pace, and Autres Temps’ settings shift with an economy of effort and stagecraft that serves Taylor-Williams well. From the deck of the ocean liner Queen Mary (created by two white wooden folding chairs and David Noel Edwards’ smart sound design), Mrs. Lidcote sips champagne with “wants-to-be-more-than-just-good-friend” Franklin Ide (a smooth James Goodwin Rice, co-founder of Albany’s own Capital Repertory Theatre and, like the others in the cast, a Shakespeare & Company alumnus). Ide tries to convince her that “Lenox is far enough from New York that the ritual (shunning) may not be known there,” which drew knowing chuckles from the audience.
The second scene slips to the smallish, second-floor sitting room in the Berkshire estate of Leila and her new husband Wilbur, where Mrs. Lidcote arranges red roses in a crystal vase, marveling that “everything’s changed . . . there’s no ‘Old New York’ left . . . every woman has the right to happiness,” while waiting for her daughter to greet her. In the third scene, marked by a new arrangment of white lilies, family confidant and serial status updater Susy Suffern (the peerless Corinna May) breathlessly tells the waiting Mrs. Lidcote “You won’t know Leila. She’s had her pearls reset.” By the time Leila and her pearls make their own appearance with the brash greeting, “You queer wild mother. I know how you hate people,” in the fourth scene, the shadows of doubt across Mrs. Lidcote’s face are as long as those cast by the late afternoon sun through the French doors. “Leila will never forgive herself if you make an effort you’re not up to,” Susy sighs as she and Leila come and go into the sitting room in an effort to keep Mrs. Lidcote out of sight while an important dinner party occurs on the main floor below.
With Franklin Ide’s return in the fifth and final scene, Mrs. Lidcote’s dilemma has played out: “The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known; it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy,” she says to him as she prepares her steamer trunks for departure the following day. When he slips silently from the room while her back is turned, rather than go out and make a social visit with her, Mrs. Lidcote sits and stares into the future as a single harsh white light washes all color from her face at the play’s end.
Past adaptations of Wharton’s stories usually seemed little more than dusty costumed museum pieces, “tea cuplets” with a pretentious sensibility. But Taylor-Williams’ 1962 update lends Autres Temps a timelier confine, illuminating characters and theme more than 1911 passementeries, opera gloves, and lorgnettes would. This is a case where the director’s concept brings into sharper focus the play’s theme rather than obscures it.