This memorable version of Wharton’s tragic tale proved beyond doubt about how people can be shaped by their environment. Set in the inhospitable Massachusetts town of Starkfield during the mid-19th century, Ethan Frome recounts the lives of three people who cannot communicate with one another – Ethan himself (John Sharian), his wife Zena (Lorelei King) and the distant cousin-cum-helper Matty (Barbara Barnes). Zena had married Ethan several years previously, in the belief that he would do something with his life; but this dream has long been extinguished, as Ethan runs a loss-making farm, while Zena herself responds by retiring almost permanently to her bed with a series of psychosomatic illnesses. Matty comes to work at their house, and falls in love with Ethan; while the two are undoubtedly attracted to one another, they never summon up sufficient courage to act upon their instincts. Their doomed relationship is symbolized by the pickle dish, one of Zena’s family heirlooms which Matty accidentally smashes while preparing dinner.
Cherry Cookson’s production emphasized the emotional distance between the characters in several ways. On occasions it seemed as if Ethan and Matty preferred to disclose their feelings direct to listeners rather than talk to each other, believing no doubt that this would not cause pain for either of them. Cookson used overlapping dialogue: at first Ethan offered the comment “I did not even look at her” in an aside, closely followed by Matty. Although sharing the same opinions, they could not express them overtly. For the most part their subjects of conversation ranged between platitudes and insincere expressions of concern.
The pathos of the lovers’ plight was underlined by bursts of soulful music played on the cello and violin; this was not just a story of two individuals but a human tragedy played out against a background of insular small-town values and over-intrusive neighbours.
None of the protagonists experienced spiritual development; they remained the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Matty was paralysed as a result of the accident with the sledge and now lived with Ethan and Zena; Zena looked after her, having rediscovered some meaning in her life, while Ethan experienced a living death. Only fifty-two years old, he behaved like someone twenty years older.
Cookson told a grim tale, rendered even more painful by the three main performances. Nonetheless, this version of Ethan Frome is definitely worth another listen, if and when it is repeated on Radio 7.