There are plenty of regular playgoers who don't frequent Book-It Repertory Theatre. It's not one of Seattle's major professional powerhouses, but it's not the frisky fringe, either. It's dedicated to a very specific type of work—literal adaptations of great novels—rather than the latest Broadway smash, a favorite old musical, or the current hot property on the resident- theater circuit. Whenever I go, I'm pleased to run into people I don't always see at the theater—artists, writers, filmmakers, and assorted others who like to read. But if you've never counted yourself among the Book-It crowd, go now for its season finale, The House of Mirth, because it's a fine example of the type of thing the company does best.
The House of Mirth Book-It Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center House Theatre, 206-216-0833, www.book-it.org. $15–$30. Various times and days, through May 13.
Edith Wharton's source novel is set in the rarefied air of New York society, circa 1900. It contains trainloads of colorful characters, all of them behaving one way and thinking another—perfect for Book-It's approach, which dramatizes not just the dialogue of a story but the narration and descriptive passages as well. At the center is Miss Lily Bart, a beautiful, poised, yet penniless socialite rapidly passing the age of eligibility. Unfortunately, Lily is constitutionally unable to settle for the marriage of convenience her social sphere demands, and The House of Mirth chronicles the fatal consequences of her resistance.
Marcus Goodwin's adaptation for Book-It bypasses many of Wharton's eddies and asides, setting Lily on a fairly direct path to ruin. The result is not quite as funny as the original, but I don't think that's a detraction. Wharton, after all, took over 400 pages to get the reader from satire to tragedy; Book-It has two and a half short hours. If the production had emphasized the humor of the opening scenes, the story's dark turns might have seemed jarring. As it is, it does a fine job of replicating the engrossing, propulsive quality of a good read.
It falls to actor Jennifer Lee Taylor to bring the audience along as Miss Lily Bart transforms from shallow schemer to tragic figure. Taylor's performance grew on me over time. At first, her appetites (for luxury and love) seem too thinly veiled for someone of supposedly impeccable manners and tact. But as Lily's pretensions are slowly stripped away, Taylor's lack of artifice becomes right for the role; she communicates the deep disgrace of Lily's situation, the impossibility of her future.
Taylor is well met by David Quicksall as Lawrence Selden, the story's only truth teller. We can see that the appealing, observant Lawrence is Lily's perfect match, but she can't (because he's not wealthy enough), and he fails to turn his words into action. A number of excellent performances support Quicksall's and Taylor's, including Shana Bestock as the humble Gerty Farish, Kelly Kitchens as the slightly scandalous Carry Fisher, and Todd Licea as the "repugnant" Mr. Rosedale, who turns out to be not so repugnant after all. Book-It's able co–artistic director, Jane Jones, directs.
The onlytrue disappointment in the production is the spartan costuming. As for the sets, a simple hearth and upholstered chair can suggest more luxurious surroundings in a pinch. But when your central character is a woman who plainly states her only value to society is her face and her ability to dress well, it's nonsensical to confine her to one rather washed-out pale-pink ensemble for the entire first act. Book-It operates on a shoestring, yes, but surely one of the other Seattle Center theaters could lend a few more gowns out of storage. And granted, Taylor is onstage so continuously it would be difficult to find opportunities to change, but wouldn't Miss Lily Bart—who knows how to work sartorial magic—find a way?
But perhaps this is just my own shallow desire for opulence and finery talking. The House of Mirth takes its title from a biblical passage criticizing an excess of frivolity, and in this day of mass-marketed luxuries, we would be wise to heed it.