Review: Ethan Frome (Lookingglass Theatre)

     
     

Bleak, desperate tale remains with you long after blackout

    
   

Louise Lamson, Lisa Tejero and Philip R. Smith - in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Ethan Frome
        
Adapted and Directed by Laura Eason
from novel by
Edith Wharton
at
Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. (map)
thru April 17  | 
tickets: $20 – $63  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Everything about Ethan Frome is cold and stark. The bare branches of the skeletal trees framing the set. The sharp angles of rough-hewn planks representing a New England farm. The minimalist dialogue. The loveless marriage of the piece’s titular anti-hero. The very name of the town where the story plays out: Starkfield.

From set designer Daniel Ostling’s austere evocation of Massachusetts in winter to actor Philip R. Smith’s depiction of the taciturn Ethan, the world of Edith Wharton’s turn-of the-century tragedy is chilly and severe. That harsh sensibility wholly informs Laura Eason’s adaptation of the classic, a terse, 90-minute telling that captures the chill as well as the relentless longing and frustration that define Frome’s life.

Dan Ostling's bleak, powerful set in Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean WilliamsIn creating a world that’s as bleakly spare as a frozen field, Eason (who also directs) gives Wharton’s prose a memorable impact. But that austere ambiance also serves to distance the audience from both story and characters. With Ethan Frome, you’re watching tragedy unfold from afar, as a spectator separated from the action by a scrim of frost. The effect creates a staging that is powerful but muted. Ethan’s troubles come to life from a distance, seen through a metaphorical lens lightly coated in rime.

The production moves at a slow, matter-of-fact pace that matches the temperament of Ethan himself, a New England family farmer of few words. Up until the penultimate scene – a wind-whipped catastrophe staged with such simple and simply beautiful force that it will leave you breathless – the story is one where torrents of emotion are cloaked in small, seemingly inconsequential gestures and almost monosyllable dialogue. The plot is more feeling than doing, and those feelings – roiling blizzards of love, rage, sorrow and yearning – are trapped like the whirling flakes beneath the dome of a snow globe.

Ethan (Philip R. Smith) initially seems more shadow than substance as silently shuffles across a murky stage, one lame foot dragging behind him. His limp and striking, lonesome figure arouses the curiosity of Henry Morton (Andrew White), the out-of-towner whose pensive narration of Frome’s story bookend the story.

Through Henry‘s recollections, we see that Ethan’s quiet life has been defined by sickness and by the women in it. Coming in from a hard day hauling lumber, he’s faced with a dark house and the wailing, disconsolate wailing of his dying mother. He longs, Ethan murmurs, to hear other voices in the home. He gets his desire when Xena, (Lisa Tejero) arrives to care for Ethan’s mother and then marries him after the old woman dies.

But as Tejero makes implicit in Xena’s unsettling transformation from benevolent helpmate to hypochondriac domestic dictator, the one-time nursemaid soon becomes as onerous a burden as the timber Ethan hauls. Tejero makes Xena’s sickly dominance complete; her character is so noxious as to be slowly drowning Ethan in his own home. In Smith’s fine performance, Ethan’s helplessness and increasing hopelessness become almost palpable. His words are soft-spoken and sparse. His eyes are wild with desperation.

     
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louise Lamson and Erik Lochtefeld in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

Into this oppressive atmosphere comes Xena’s young cousin Mattie Silver (Louise Lamson), a lively, generous woman whose youthful vitality, curiosity and kindness stand in direct contrast to the prematurely aging, forever sickly and self-absorbed Xena. The romantic triangle that results is not surprising. The controlled intensity with which it plays out is memorable, Lamson as luminous as early spring, Tejero the personification of dour, gray winter.

The contrast among the three principals is subtly emphasized in Mara Blumenfeld’s deft costume design. Mattie sports a scarf the color of cherry blossoms, Xena dresses in drab blacks and grays, Smith’s worn, earth-colored trousers speak to Ethan’s rich love of the land. Color, or the lack thereof, plays a similarly key role throughout the production. The fate of Xena’s ruby-red pickle dish is a tragedy in miniature reflecting the larger destruction of entire lives.

That wind-whipped destruction comes tangled in a moment of wild and breathless joy as Eason’s hurtles toward the drama’s ultimately sobering conclusion. The freeze-frame tableau toward the end of Ethan Frome – a bright pool of cherry-colored blood starkly outlined against the haze of winter whites – is apt to remain with you long after the final blackout.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
       
    

Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

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