Anne Undeland may be a longtime resident of the Berkshires — a place she says is suffused with Edith Wharton’s spirit and where the author’s Lenox estate, The Mount, is located — but it wasn’t until Undeland was 30 when she began reading Wharton’s work. Besotted, she quickly devoured “The House of Mirth,” “The Age of Innocence,” and more. “I really couldn’t get enough,” Undeland says by phone from her home in Lanesborough. “She’s been one of my favorite writers for a long time.”
Still, it was only when she read the passionate letters between Wharton and her lover Morton Fullerton that an idea for a play began to take shape. Those letters, which Fullerton kept despite Wharton asking him to burn them, were discovered after her death in 1937. “This sense of longing and yearning and ecstasy and pain — and all those feelings that go along with falling headlong in love with somebody — really touched a nerve in me,” Undeland says. “And that glorious but excruciating feeling is really quite universal.”
Those letters, some erotically charged, others heartsick expressions of longing, provided the inspiration for Undeland’s new play, “Mr. Fullerton, Between the Sheets,” that Gloucester Stage Company is mounting July 1-24, directed by Judy Braha. A work of historical fiction, the play is set in the early 20th century after the massive success of “The House of Mirth.” Stuck in a stultifying marriage, Wharton (Sarah Newhouse) is living in Paris for a spell when she falls for fellow writer Fullerton (Ryan Winkles), an itinerant bon vivant and correspondent for the Times of London.
The affair with Fullerton, Undeland says, “really woke Edith Wharton up, and I think she comes to understand herself in a much deeper and fuller way. This sexual awakening had a cascading effect on her as an artist and as a person for the rest of her life.”
As she becomes consumed with the affair, Wharton confabs with her close friend and fellow literary wit Henry James (Joshua Wolf Coleman) and saucy Irish maid Posy (Bridgette Hayes), who’s been secretly reading Wharton’s finished pages and later awakens the high-born author to the realities and lives of the working class.
The Harvard-educated Fullerton was a mysterious figure, always on the move and often juggling multiple affairs. He “ghosts” Wharton at times and often doesn’t write back. “He was a fascinating, immensely seductive person,” Undeland says. “But I think his power was really in the bedroom, and I think he really loved to wake that part of people up.”
“I think all of us have been there where we’ve loved somebody more than they’ve loved us,” she adds, “or we’ve wanted more from them than they were giving back to us.”
Wharton was 46 and at the height of her powers as an author when she met Fullerton. “She was formidable and terrifying and always the smartest person in the room and up on this forbidding pedestal,” Undeland says. And yet he still left her in a puddle of lovesick devotion and desperate heartbreak.
Indeed, for a woman of profound intellect “who was so caught up in her mind,” Undeland says, “it’s quite amazing and beautiful that she falls in love in such a full-bodied way and has this sexual awakening and this love awakening at an age where she thought all those doors were closed to her.”
“Mr. Fullerton” is the second of five plays in Gloucester’s mainstage season, overseen by Boston theater luminary Paula Plum, who took over as the theater’s interim artistic director last winter. The season kicks off with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “Gloria,” running June 3-26. An office satire turned tragedy focuses on a group of ambitious young worker bees at a prestigious cultural magazine. When their ordinary day at the office turns horrific, how far will they go to avoid self-scrutiny and capitalize on their own trauma? Plum describes the play as “a commentary on the disintegration of our society and how compassion can be compromised for ambition.”
Bess Wohl’s Tony-nominated comedy about marital malaise, “Grand Horizons,” checks in July 29-Aug. 21. It centers on a retired couple’s decision to divorce after 50 years and the unexpected effects of that split on their adult children. “When that mirror gets shattered,” Plum says, “the family doesn’t have its own self-image anymore, and their kids become a mess.”
“Paradise Blue,” the third play in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit cycle, runs Aug. 26-Sept. 18. In Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood in 1949, trumpeter and bandleader Blue fields a lucrative offer for his jazz club and grapples with pressure from friends and neighbors not to sell, despite his desire to leave behind a traumatic past. “It’s a historical look at the gentrification of Detroit in a neighborhood filled with people struggling to keep their community together as real estate developers move in,” Plum says.
The final entry of the season, Lucas Hnath’s “The Thin Place,” arrives just in time for spooky season, Sept. 30-Oct. 23. In this eerie ghost story, a woman befriends a medium in order to connect with the spirit of her beloved grandmother. “You question what you see before your own eyes,” Plum says. “There are moments of shock and surprise.”
MR. FULLERTON, BETWEEN THE SHEETS
Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. July 1-24. $15-$54. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.