Wharton’s short, spare and scolding 1911 morality tale concerns impoverished mill owner Ethan (Smith), his sickly, shrewish wife, Zeena (Tejero), and Mattie Silver (Lamson), Zeena’s orphaned relation who comes to live with them. Downtrodden by a life of hard circumstance and his wife’s bitter recriminations, Ethan finds a spark of hope in the attentions of the appealing and innocent young Mattie.
This is what we’re told, anyway, by the narrator character Eason borrows from Wharton. Unnamed in the novel, here he’s dubbed Henry Morton (White), a businessman laid up for the winter in Ethan’s rural Massachusetts town, 20 years after Mattie’s arrival. We know things end badly, as Henry first encounters Ethan as a crippled and withered husk of a man. It’s Henry’s attempt to discover Ethan’s history, presented in flashback, that forms the bulk of Wharton’s novel and Eason’s adaptation alike.
The trouble is, what we’re told about the characters’ roiling emotions doesn’t match what we see in Eason’s alternately dour and cartoonish production. Tejero makes Zeena’s hysterical illness a matter of comic relief, while Lamson’s baby-voiced babe in the woods seems unlikely to inspire thoughts of elopement in a man with morals as rigid as Ethan’s. Aside from one striking visual set piece, Eason’s repetitive staging and thin theatrical metaphors (watch Smith and Erik Lochtefeld, as Ethan’s hired hand, stack and restack logs to mark the passing seasons) do little to justify the dramatization. In the title role, Smith is too reserved. Henry laments he’ll never know what it was truly like for Ethan to live such a tragic life; even after watching it unfold, neither will we.