The white-haired woman is sitting in a cozy chair in a cozy room under the light of a cozy lamp. She is counting her rosary beads, the paternoster whispered, her head inclined so that the words leaving her lips are directed to the red beads, seeing naught else. As the audience enters from intermission, a hush falls over them as people become aware of the woman praying in the cozy chair. She is repenting. “I hope that I am a good Catholic,” she says upon seeing us, a coy smile playing across her face. She stands and faces us, confessing, “I cannot repent it if I can’t understand why it’s wrong.”
An hour later, Cora Attlee (Jane Nichols) resumes her original position, reciting her rosary all over again. In between, she’s confessed a marvelous ghost tale, and we forgive her with wild applause that brings us to our feet.
Those mirrored scenes are the essence of The Looking Glass, one of the finest Wharton adaptations ever seen since Shakespeare & Company first performed at the Mount 35 years ago. The Wharton Salon’s twin-bill Two by Wharton: Quicksand and The Looking Glass is a “must see” for Edith Wharton fans and a “not to be missed” by those who appreciate fine storytelling, engaging acting, splendid costumes, and a fulfilling good-time. Now in their fifth season of staging Wharton adaptations at her former mansion, the troupe offer intimate productions of seldom-seen works in a brief two-week season.
The 30-minute opener, Quicksand, offers a typical Wharton assay into the mannered doings of rich turn-of-the-20th-century New Yorkers, and the patriarchy that crimps their pampered lives. The opulent attire by Shakespeare & Company costumer Arthur Oliver does much to convey the lives of Gilded Age matron Mrs. Quentin (Ariel Bock), her captain-of-industry “perfect son” Alan (Wesley Cooper), and his modern-aged intended Hope Fenno (Ava Lindenmaier), who jilts him. The three scenes are perfectly adapted to modern commercial TV structure, and the last scene as the lights dim on Hope in the medieval portrait gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is perfect denouement.
The Looking Glass is perfect entertainment after a generous tea-and-cookie intermission. Jane Nichols captures the energy, wit, and faint desperation of a working-class Irish woman who regales the audience with a 65-minute monologue worthy of Brian Friel. Guilt, ghosts, forlorn love, wit, and humor meld in Nichols’s earnest Cora Attlee, a masseuse to 1930s high-society women using a touch of her forbidden Irish Old Sod mysticism: “You’ll not tell the good Father Divott, I know,” she says to the audience, seeming to look into the souls of each and everyone of us to see, then repeats the line just to be sure. A last-week replacement for an ill actress, Nichols captures the laughter, the satire, and the compassion of Wharton’s Irish working-class woman under Daniela Varon’s sure direction.