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Paula McGonagle and Andy Paris in Innocents
(Photo Credit © Rachel Dickstein)
"I am horribly poor -- and very expensive," says Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's turn-of-the-century novel The House of Mirth. Ripe Time's new stage adaptation of the book, entitled Innocents, is at once extremely faithful to the novel and prone to abstraction. The play contains several snippets of dialogue, such as the above quotation, taken verbatim from Wharton's text; but other passages are expressed almost exclusively through dance and movement.

The stylish production was conceived, adapted, and directed by Rachel Dickstein, artistic director of Ripe Time. She was assisted by Emily Morse, who served as co-adapter and dramaturg. Performed by a cast of seven -- most playing multiple roles -- the play tells the story of Lily Bart (Paula McGonagle), a young woman living on the fringes of high society. Lily wants desperately to secure her place among the wealthy but is dragged down by increasing debts and doubts as to whether or not success in her endeavors will give her the happiness she seeks.

A chance encounter with Lawrence Selden (Andy Paris) diverts her from her avowed path at a crucial juncture. Selden, like Lily, is slightly outside the inner circle of high society, but this is mostly his own choice. While not poor, he is not so wealthy as to fit Lily's concept of a husband; in fact, she states rather plainly that he can't think she wants to marry him. Yet when Selden shows up unexpectedly at a house party given by Gus and Judy Trenor (Christopher Oden and Jill A. Samuels), Lily chooses to spend her time with him rather than with the boring but rich Percy Gryce (Grant Neale), upon whom she had set her sights.

Both Wharton's novel and Dickstein's production examine the intersection of class and gender in a complex yet thoroughly engaging manner. Lily is far more than the ambitious golddigger that others take her for. McGonagle is well cast as this aging beauty and is particularly good at conveying Lily's shifting emotions in the non-verbal sequences. Paris, with his boyishly handsome appearance, often seems just a little too young for the part of Selden, but he brings to the character a soulful, sensitive spirit.

Choreographed by Dickstein in collaboration with the ensemble, the dance and movement within the play often reflect Lily's emotional state. McGonagle's movement vocabulary is typified by outstretched arms, as if she is trying to grasp something that's always just out of her reach. Original music, composed by Katie Down, enhances the production; there is a languorous feel to the score, which is performed on piano, violin, and cello. Tyler Micoleau's lighting design makes good use of side lights and saturated ambers to create a lush effect, while Susan Zeeman Rogers' set consists primarily of several wrought iron gates that swing back and forth to divide the playing space into different configurations.

There are a few missteps in Innocents. For example, the sexual tension between Lily and Selden is overplayed in the scene of their first meeting; both Paris and McGonagle look as if they want to rip each other's clothes off, but their characters' mutual attraction should be displayed in a more subtle fashion. The fact that the other actors play multiple roles is confusing at times, especially since there are few changes in wardrobe to indicate the different characters. (Ilona Somogyi is the costume designer.) I was particularly at a loss as to when LeeAnne Hutchison was supposed to be playing Bertha Dorset and when she was Carry Fisher; a second-act scene in which I thought she was the former read very differently when I figured out that she was actually the latter. Still, this vibrant production is sure to please fans of Wharton's novels and provide an excellent introduction for those new to her work.

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