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Bridgette Hayes (left) and Sarah Newhouse in “Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets.” Photo: Jason Grow

Edith Wharton’s odyssey uncovered by Gloucester Stage in ‘Between the Sheets’

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Edith Wharton’s odyssey uncovered by Gloucester Stage in ‘Between the Sheets’

Bridgette Hayes (left) and Sarah Newhouse in “Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets.” Photo: Jason Grow

GLOUCESTER — Judy Braha has demonstrated a particular interest in staging plays focused on real people. Among the veteran director’s notable truth-inspired efforts are “Golda’s Balcony” (the one-woman show about Golda Meir) and “Our Class” (a powerfully disturbing work about Jewish and non-Jewish Polish students and antisemitism).

Her latest such effort is a 2021 Anne Undeland work entitled “Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets” – which first ran at the Great Barrington Public Theater and now is at Gloucester Stage. Braha is bringing the focal Edith Wharton-Morton Fullerton love affair (1906-1909) to vivid life.

Inspired by Wharton’s letters to Fullerton (which he never burned as requested and which resurfaced in 1988), Undeland evocatively imagines the Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Wharton’s sexual awakening (at 46) in a play that has as much to do with women and their desires as with the romance in question. In her playbill notes, the playwright observes that “Morton Fullerton broke Edith’s heart but he woke her up.” Undeland gives ample attention to both the awakening and the heartbreak. At the same time, she captures the complexity of Fullerton himself.

That complexity includes his serious work as a journalist – covering the 1894 trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish background who was convicted of treason – as the Paris correspondent for the London Times. Fullerton also assisted with the publication in French of Wharton’s acclaimed “The House of Mirth.”

Wharton eventually discovers that her elusive lover became involved with men as well as women: an intimate of George Santayana and lover of Lord Ronald Gower. Though not mentioned by name in the play, Gower was the probable center of letters for which Fullerton is blackmailed to the tune of 50,000 francs and for which Wharton pays.

While bisexual and promiscuous, Fullerton’s diminishing attentions would lead to her heartbreak, Wharton (in an unsatisfying marriage) experiences sexual liberation with him. Undeland establishes that liberation virtually from the start of her play as Fullerton invites Wharton to bite his chin as she becomes brave with him in bed at a French hotel. For much of the play, the lovers meet at various hotels – identified with hand-held signs by the novelist’s lady’s maid Posy.

Designer Jenna McFarland Lord has effectively appointed the upstage hotel sets –separated from Wharton’s handsome Vanderbilt-owned downstage Paris residence by a smoothly moving stage-wide curtain.

If Undeland makes the Wharton-Fullerton liaisons satisfying – in part thanks to intimacy director Angie Jepson, she does need to make the play’s depiction of Wharton and friend and fellow novelist Henry James as writers more substantive. Wharton strews new writing pages around her residence – pages Posy enthusiastically examines – but there could be striking passages from her “The House of Mirth” in the play. As for James, mention is made of the unimpressive sales of his novel, “The Ambassadors,” but his seminal “The Portrait of a Lady” receives little more than name-dropping. Ultimately these major novelists should seem more iconic.

Such reservations notwithstanding, the four-member cast – under Braha’s sharp direction – makes Wharton’s sexual and emotional odyssey and Fullerton’s singular elusiveness continuously absorbing. Sarah Newhouse captures Wharton’s naiveté and self-doubts on the one hand and blossoming with Fullerton on the other. Ryan Winkles finds all of Fullerton’s ambivalence and easy charm as well as his manipulative demeanor. Newhouse and Winkles have real chemistry in the hotel romancing.

Joshua Wolf Coleman catches James’ warmth as Wharton’s good friend and does well with a role that needs more depth. Bridgette Hayes is a scene-stealing revelation as Posy – especially during the unassuming maid’s own observations.

In Braha’s playbill notes, she speaks of the honor of being “a part of the developmental process” of Undeland’s play. “Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets” could do with more development, but Braha and company make Wharton’s emotional awakening very affecting.

“Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets,” runs through July 24 at the Gloucester Stage Company. For tickets, visit gloucesterstage.com

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