Lookingglass Theatre’s “Ethan Frome” is Short and Haunting

“Ethan Frome,” a story about poverty and hardship, probably isn’t your first choice for a fun evening out—but it’s worth a trip downtown anyway.

Superbly acted amid evocative sets, this play isn’t three-hour melodrama, but a piercing one-and-a-half-hour, no-intermission engagement.

If you need a refresher on Edith Wharton’s classic tale, adapted by Evanston native Laura Eason for this world premiere, Ethan Frome (Philip R. Smith) is a poor mill owner who longs to complete his education but instead is stuck caring for his ailing mother. His cousin, Zena (Lisa Tejero), helps out, and when his mother dies, Ethan asks Zena to marry him. When Zena becomes sick, the couple hires a young girl, Mattie (Louise Lamson), to care for her. Ethan finally finds true love with Mattie, but is faced with a paralyzing dilemma.

The set, an austere two-story house, evokes the raw emotions at play with its unfinished metal rods pointing out at odd angles, mimicking the bare limbs of the trees behind it. Actions upstairs often take place behind a scrim, turning the actors into looming shadows.

It’s easy to feel the connection between the earnest Ethan and Mattie—who is pale and luminous in a white dress—as they bond over stargazing, which, amazingly, doesn’t seem at all cliché. And it’s natural to want Ethan to be happy—for his dedication to pay off with some luck. Unfortunately, as in many of Edith Wharton’s stories, not everyone gets what he or she deserves.

Ethan Frome runs through April 17. Tickets are available at 312-337-0665 or at lookingglasstheatre.org. For dinner before the show, consider Spiaggia (or its more affordable café) or Balsan at the Elysian Hotel.