By Vicki Weisfeld

Return to the gilded age, with Edith Wharton’s timeless romance The Age Of Innocence, in McCarter Theatre Center’s beautiful production, stylishly directed by Doug Hughes. Playwright Douglas McGrath has turned Wharton’s classic Gilded Age novel into a riveting 90-minute play that opened September 15 and runs through October 7. (Two additional Wednesday matinees have been added to the schedule.)

Unlike 1993’s memorable movie, which lingered lovingly on “teacups and glove drawers” and the bric-a-brac of 19th century New York, McGrath’s version boils the story down to the action, intensifying the theatrical broth. The multiple scenes move around the set briskly, with few props other than gilded (naturally) chairs. Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for a novel titled this work ironically, as the “innocence” of the characters could only be maintained by blind adherence to the era’s rigid social code. The characters aren’t all that innocent, of course (“You mustn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine,” says the character May), except that Wharton wrote the book after the horrifying carnage of World War I, and perhaps the 1870s did appear “innocent” by comparison.

The play’s main character, the young lawyer Newland Archer (played by Andrew Veenstra and in his old age by Boyd Gaines) moves smoothly in the highest reaches of New York society. He is betrothed to the beautiful May Welland (Helen Cespedes), but before the marriage can take place, he becomes smitten with May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess). Ellen is barely tolerated in society because she has deserted her husband, an apparent ogre, and had some vague dalliance with his secretary. Nevertheless, every encounter with Ellen ensnares Newland more tightly.

On Newland and May’s honeymoon trip, he becomes acutely aware of her limitations. He says, for her, their marriage is not a window on a wider world, but a wall against change. Before the play is over, the ability of all three of them to maintain the social strictures or give way to personal desires will be tested.

The crackling physical desire between Archer and Ellen is powerfully portrayed by Veenstra and Boggess. Meanwhile, May soldiers cheerily on, and Cespedes is charming as the loyal wife who perpetually does right by her cousin Ellen, her husband, and the rest of her family. Four-time Tony winner Gaines casts a rueful eye on the actions and missteps of his younger self. A strong supporting cast plays multiple characters and family members. On-stage throughout is pianist Yan Li, playing an evocative original score by Mark Bennett (who also created the sound design) that stitches everything together.

John Lee Beatty has designed a single beautiful set that generously accommodates the differing scenic requirements, aided by Ben Stanton’s clever lighting design. The luscious costumes are by Linda Cho and hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Choreography was by Peter Pucci.

It’s a fantastic start to McCarter’s 2018-19 season!

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.