Shereen Ahmed as Ellen and Callum Adams as Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, 2024. Photo by Jim Cox.

The Age of Innocence

Old Globe Theatre, San Diego

Written by:
Josh Baxt
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Set in 1876 New York City, “The Age of Innocence” highlights Gilded Age high society’s unwritten rules and how they narrow people’s lives, leaving them with comfortable unhappiness. Wharton won the Pulitzer for the book (the first woman to receive the prize), which was published in 1920. And while the Globe’s effort is interesting, it is less than magical.

The story is mostly a love triangle between Newland Archer (Callum Adams), his fiancé May Welland (Delphi Borich) and the intoxicating Countess Ellen Olenska (Shereen Ahmed), Welland’s cousin, who recently left her brute husband and returned to New York.

Archer is immediately smitten with Countess Olenska, but is hemmed in by his obligations to Welland and society’s certain reaction should he stray. Ahmed is outstanding as Countess Olenska, portraying a simmering indifference that lights up the stage. With his fiancé’s naïve encouragement, Archer works hard to support Olenska, helping her sort through legal matters, as well as engineering her acceptance back into New York society.

Visually, the show is gorgeous: the costumes, the lighting, the pristine white stage. Rich New Yorkers went to a lot of shows and the theater/opera scenes are nicely done. But the play oscillates between being self-conscious subtlety and blatantly didactic.

On the subtle side, there are lots of engaging looks between Archer and Olenska that perhaps could have used more physicality. It doesn’t help that Adams and Ahmed lack chemistry. To clarify things, Zacarías introduces a narrator (Eva Kaminsky) to provide insights into the would-be lovers and the underlying rules of the game, which produces a lot of telling but very little showing.

The book is known for its humorous takes on wealthy New York society. While there are a few amusing lines in the narration, the play does not produce the same results. Being stomped on by the elite is serious business, and though there are many opportunities to skewer individual characters, those are mostly unrealized.

Adapting “The Age of Innocence” to the stage is a high-difficulty project. The novel chronicles a time when using a woman’s first name or taking off her glove could get either party (though probably the woman) excommunicated. It’s hard to make those anachronistic morés resonate 100 years later. Still, the show’s structure doesn’t do it any favors, making Wharton’s brilliant story a little limp.

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