Ethan Frome

It's hard to think of a harder piece of realistic fiction to adapt to the stage than Edith Wharton's 1911 novella.

'Ethan Frome'

It’s hard to think of a harder piece of realistic fiction to adapt to the stage than Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella “Ethan Frome.” There are the obvious challenges: the climactic sled ride, the shifting style of narration from first-person participant to literary omniscience, the dual timeframes. But above all, there’s the enticingly dramatic but difficult requirement of capturing the intense emotions of inhibited, taciturn characters. In this physically and emotionally austere adaptation, writer-director Laura Eason (“Sex With Strangers”) doesn’t manage to make the unsaid border on the unbearable.

Eason demonstrates impressive skill with the narrative unveiling of the story, in which an outside visitor (Andrew White) to a remote New England town becomes fascinated with the deformed figure of Ethan Frome (Philip R. Smith), providing the catalyst to an extended flashback telling of his tragic tale.

Stuck in his small house (beautifully depicted by Daniel Ostling) with his hypochondriac, wife Zeena (Lisa Tejero), Ethan falls desperately in love with Mattie Silver (Louise Lamson), Zeena’s impoverished orphan cousin who comes to serve as her caretaker.

But you know that Eason struggles to combine the frigidity of the small-town winter setting with the heat of the lovers’ latent passion when she relies more and more on music to manifest the emotion. Kevin O’Donnell’s score, like so much of this show, is lovely but rarefied, and ultimately a deflection. And while the excellent Smith captures the haunting quality of the older Ethan, he relies on weepiness when the character’s emotional and moral dilemma comes to a head, an awfully odd and inappropriate choice.

Eason stages the sled ride by spinning the characters on a platform, which is adequate but hardly gripping. But the core problem isn’t the theatricality. This is a tale of two lovers who so bottle up their affections that, when forced to part, their feelings explode into a suicide pact that goes awry. When the emotions feel far more genteel than explosive, the story has already started downhill before the sled does.

Ethan Frome

Lookingglass Theater, Chicago; 230 seats; $62 top

  • Production: A Lookingglass Theater Company presentation of a play in one act, written and directed by Laura Eason.
  • Crew: Set, Daniel Ostling; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, Christine Binder; music, Kevin O'Donnell; sound, Rick Sims. Opened, reviewed March 5, 2011. Runs through April 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.
  • Cast: Ethan Frome - Philip R. Smith<br/> Mattie Silver - Louise Lamson<br/> Zenobia Frome - Lisa Tejero<br/> Henry Morton - Andrew White<br/> Harmon Brand, Others - Erik Lochtefeld