Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Age of Innocence
The Old Globe
Review by Rick Pender

Also see Rick's review of English

Shereen Ahmed and Callum Adams
Photo by Jim Cox
Edith Wharton's 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Age of Innocence," has steadily remained in print over the past century. It's been the inspiration for stage productions and screen adaptations, including Martin Scorsese's lush 1993 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. The story of disruptive, unrequited love in tradition-bound 1870 New York society–the so-called "Gilded Age"–has now been adapted for the stage by playwright Karen Zacarías. Her The Age of Innocence is receiving its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe through March 10.

In an interview published in the production's program, Zacarías explains how her 2009 comedy The Book Club Play was the catalyst. It's a series of amusing episodes about members of a club and their reactions to various novels. "The second episode is about 'The Age of Innocence.' And the man who never reads, reads the book–and it completely transforms his life." A friend of Zacarías suggested she should adapt Wharton's novel, which is about Newland Archer, a successful young attorney whose life is transformed when his predictable, imminent marriage to socially established but empty-headed May Welland is undermined by his infatuation with his fiancée's exotic cousin, the scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska.

Cullum Adams is handsome and malleable as Newland, the up-and-coming lawyer who has been groomed for a predictable role in society, which includes an appropriate marriage to May, played demurely by Delphi Borich, into a prominent old-money family. The arrival of Countess Olenska, gorgeously inhabited by Shereen Ahmed, fleeing Europe and marriage to a cruel Polish count, requires some steady legal guidance, and Newland is designated for the task of advising her of the pitfalls of divorce. Breathtakingly beautiful and well aware of her impact on men–Ellen is constantly dressed in brilliant red, revealing gowns and fur-edged capes–she opens Newland's eyes to a free-spirited, opinionated woman. Her presence makes May, always in elegantly white, conservative gowns, look pale and uninteresting by comparison. Newland, at first guarded regarding her scandalous reputation, is soon questioning his decision to marry.

Zacarías has added a narrator to represent Edith Wharton's voice. Actor Eva Kaminsky, wearing a modern dark pantsuit and pale blue shirt, hovers around the edge of scenes, offering wry observations and providing insights to move the complex narrative forward. Her sardonic tone is a reminder that Wharton's novel is decidedly ironic. In fact, The Age of Innocence comes with a title that, in fact, warns us that the story is anything but innocent. Even sweet May, who appears largely ignorant, perhaps willfully so, of the motives of others, is shown ultimately to have more perception than might have been expected.

Newland fervently and passionately wishes he could escape the empty marriage he's headed for. Even after it's a fait accompli, his obsession with Ellen continues and, in fact, remains a lifelong, unfulfilled dream. His various brief encounters with her–slowly, silently removing her glove, yearning for more–have a promise of sensuality that he never can grasp. In the tale's denouement, a scene 30 years later when Newland is offered a reconnection with Ellen at her Paris apartment, he ultimately declines, even though May has died two years previously–sadly acknowledging that his memory is the only place where he can escape the strictures of the social order.

Adams gives Newland the kind of initial naïveté that makes his unfolding life almost tragic. He is so overwhelmed by his attraction to Ellen that he never fully recognizes that hidebound 19th-century New York society will never let him head in the direction he so desires. Borich plays May with a kind of sweet but strong inevitability: She has been raised by this society to achieve an end, and she knows how to navigate pitfalls without causing a ripple in her family's narrow world.

Ahmed's Ellen, on the other hand, sweeps into every scene (she even enters, not from the show's wings, but coming down an audience aisle) and commands the center of attention. She is not afraid to speak her mind, even when she is getting advice that is not how she cares to proceed. She takes quick turns of decisions with aplomb, seldom hesitating to ponder their potential consequences. Ahmed has the physical beauty the role of Ellen requires, but beneath that surface she portrays a woman more confident than most in the era, even though she has not found the romantic satisfaction that could have been hers.

Director Chay Yew's staging for The Old Globe has given The Age of Innocence a lushly costumed production designed by Susan E. Mickey on Arnulfo Maldonado's minimalist, uncurtained stage that swiftly transforms from scene to scene with the raising and lowering of a chandelier or a table that emerges from the stark white floor and isolated pieces of muted furniture delivered by stagehands dressed as lower-class 19th-century workers. Scenes are backlit with a glowing rear-wall screen of singular, solid primary colors that set the mood and provide evocative silhouettes of the ten-person cast as well as backing for pinpointed character moments. Lee Fiskness's lighting design makes for vivid, almost formal stage pictures.

This episodic production (two hours, 20 minutes, one intermission) never stalls thanks to Yew's fluid direction, even in moments of ineffable emotion. Zacarías's rendition of The Age of Innocence will likely find its way to many American theaters that traffic in classic adaptations.

The Age of Innocence runs through March 10, 2024, at The Old Globe, Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 619-234-5623.