“It’s still the most beautiful view in the world,” says Alida Slade, admiring the Roman Forum from a restaurant terrace. There’s something grim about this wealthy woman from Manhattan, acrid and judgemental, adoring the ruins of an ancient civilisation.
It’s one subtle touch in Edith Wharton’s short story – adapted for the stage by Hugh Leonard in 1983 – about the self-destructive side of tradition. While their young daughters are out on a double date, Alida (Ali White) dines in Rome with her oldest friend Grace (Karen Ardiff). Both have been companions through different stages of life: marriage, motherhood and now widowhood.
Surprisingly, Wharton’s story is less preoccupied with grief than it is a study in dominance. White’s haughty Alida will wish a bad marriage on her daughter, just for the opportunity to run her life. Grace, un-fussed in Ardiff’s performance, takes out wool and knitting needles, and occasionally flashes with shock at her friend’s remarks.
In such moments, director Michael James Ford’s production for Bewley’s Café Theatre seems to resemble a frothy comedy of manners, with Jack Kirwan’s conventional but resplendent set detailing an attractive city skyline. But elsewhere – in the twilight of Colm Maher’s elegant lighting, and restrained details in Peter O’Brien’s tasteful costuming – the play yearns for darker territory.
As the two friends discuss stories about women overcome by envy and Roman Fever, or malaria, there emerges a long-time jealousy within Alida, who now places her hopes into the prospects of her daughter Jenny. It reveals an astonishing subterfuge among American aristocracy that is compelling, and possibly deserved of a more muted and suspenseful production.
When Grace reveals that her daughter Barbara is in fact engaged, Alida, a picture of devastation, digs up the past: an old power struggle in the shadows of the Colosseum, where a life-changing hoax was perpetrated. The tragedy, Wharton knew well, is that this is simply the latest conflict between different generations of women, each turned against each other by toxic myths in society.
Though Leonard’s adaptation is less wisely, a contemporary production may yet brave that territory, and show how tradition can breed contempt for one’s gender. Then, Roman Fever will rise above and send a shiver through our bones.
Roman Fever is on until 8 September 2018 at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre in Dublin. Click here for more details.