Life and Death on the A list - 1906 style

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch
The Mint Theatre Co.
311 W. 43rd Street, 3rd fl. (977-5211)
Equity showcase (closes June 14)
Review by Jim Lopata

The House of Mirth draws its title from Ecclesiates 7:4: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." But no one said that getting into and staying in the house of mirth is easy. In 1906, playwright Clyde Fitch joined forces with Edith Wharton to dramatize her best-seller of the same name about life and death in New York's society elite.

Lily Bart was brought up poor. Nothing was given to her but the desire for good things. Having now found her way into society, Lily knows that the only way to maintain her lifestyle is to marry rich. Unfortunately, Ms. Bart cannot bring herself to tie the knot with the prudish, but wealthy, Mr. Percy Gryce (Michael Stebbins) or the brash, but wealthy, Mr. Simon Rosedale (Donald Warfield). And though she is in love with Mr. Lawrence Seldon (Gus Kaikkonen), she cannot possibly marry him with his paltry salary.

So she turns to her friend Mr. Augustus Trenor (Mike Hodge), to invest money for her, so she can live off the interest. It turns out, however, that his "interest" for her is what needs to be returned. Rather than submit to him, she vows to pay him back in full. With debt climbing, her stature declines. Realizing that she is doomed to desire a life she can never afford, she takes leave of the house of mirth and, in killing herself, joins the house of mourning.

Dramaturg Glenn Loney has done a marvelous job ensuring that the script speaks to a contemporary audience. With an open, white, neo-classical gazebo as the centerpiece of the set, Vickie B. Davis designed an airy environment of style for these characters of little substance. Matching this breezy quality were the beautiful period costumes by John Kristiansen and soft lighting by Mark T. Simpson.

A heart-breaking performance was turned in by Lisa M. Bostnar as Lily Bart. Kathleen Turco-Lyon was enchanting as the manipulative Mrs. Bertha Dorset, and Larry Swansen was captivating in his dual roles as a proper butler and the eccentric Deveraux. The rest of the cast, including Sundy Leigh Leake, Bruce Barney, G.R. Johnson, Claudia Traub, Jennifer Chudy, and Janice Muller, put in admirable performances. Director Jonathan Bank should be very proud.

With so much Ibsen and Chekhov in the contemporary repertoire, it is comforting that the Mint Theatre has found a great theatre piece from turn-of-the-century America. The House of Mirth had limited success when it first opened. Let's hope that this gem of a production gives more people an opportunity to look at its timeless themes again.
Box Score:

Writing: 2|
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1
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