10 March 2011

A is NOT "You're Adorable": a review of The Scarlet Letter at Playhouse on Park

     I should preface this review with the admission that I LOVE Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It is probably my favorite novel-length work of literature, only behind Homer’s Iliad. And my love for it dates back to high school, when it struck a far deeper chord with me than the other long work of fiction we were assigned the same year, The Catcher in the Rye. Even as a teenager, I could say, utterly without sarcasm, “Keep your Holden Caulfield; I’ll take Hester Prynne.” This fact perhaps partially explains how I ended up as a professor of early American literature at Central Connecticut State University, where I occasionally teach a course dedicated to Hawthorne and where I always gain an almost preternatural enjoyment in teaching the Puritans. (Indeed I once gave my tap teacher a collection of essays by that father/son Puritan Dynamic Duo Increase and Cotton Mather, entitled The Mathers on Dancing!) I mention all of this simply to make clear how much The Scarlet Letter means to me…indeed, so much so that, as soon as I learned last fall that Playhouse on Park would be mounting this production, I designed my syllabus for this semester’s American literature survey class around reading the book and bringing the class to this production. (But, enough of this “Custom House” essay; on with Hawthorne and the play!)


Spoiler alert: the following includes several important plot details. Stop here if you don’t know the storyline of Hawthorne’s tale and want to be surprised by what unfolds.

My review in short: Go see The Scarlet Letter!


     Nathaniel Hawthorne never called his longer works novels. They were “romances,” a term that for him implies the creation of a world that aimed not for realism but rather a rich penumbra of imagery and symbolism. Throughout his works, light and shadows play with what we can see (or think we see) and what we can know (or think we know). Hawthorne is at his best when any given description includes a) what most probably happened, b) what might possibly have happened, and c) what, given a certain worldview, could be interpreted as having happened. In short, few things in Hawthorne are ever black and white.
     Taking any Hawthorne’s text “from the page to the stage,” therefore, is not an easy task. The Scarlet Letter, as one of my college friends wrote recently on Facebook, is an “interior novel, which is why adaptations fail.” While he is correct about the book’s interiority, I don’t think that necessitates failure, and the Playhouse on Park production that opens tonight proves that.
     The adaptation, by Stuart Vaughn with Marie Kreutziger, is nothing if not faithful to the text of Hawthorne. The vast majority of the script indeed seems to be Hawthorne’s words. As a literature professor – especially one who brought his class to Wednesday night’s preview performance – I think it’s a very good thing to have his students hear the words they’ve been reading for class brought to life by talented actors in beautiful costumes on a strikingly simple set. And the use of the spotlight to distinguish between dialogue and soliloquy/internalized musings was straightforward yet effective.
     That said, as a theatre-goer, I’m not sure the script’s heavy and pervasive dependence upon Hawthorne’s language was the most effective way to present these figures in the flesh. A simpler, but still not contemporary or colloquial, speech may have made some scenes (e.g., the monologues) more effective. By differentiating the public and private spheres/faces even more distinctly, the hypocrisy and irony of the establishment’s attitudes toward Hester, Pearl, Arthur, and Roger may have been underscored even more. Hawthorne, after all, never intended to suggest that his language actually reflected the way 17th-century Puritans in America spoke; it was the artful tongue of this existential romance – a verbal iconography attempting to reflect his awe at the beauty and the flaws of his Puritan ancestors’ faith.
     But, even given the adaptors’ choice, one which demanded more of the actors, the play works…and works well, thanks to the actors and their director (the aforementioned Mr. Vaughn), who simply but deftly kept the (inter)action moving along. Hester, played by Jana Mestecky, and Arthur, played by Craig Rising, were outstanding. Ms. Mestecky balanced the difficult mixture of sadness, strength, loss, and will that is Hester, while Mr. Rising captured Dimmesdale’s suffering, doubt, and debilitating cowardice. Significantly, I believed the two of them as a couple when, out in the forest alone, they dreamed of a loving life together somewhere far away. Both avoided simplifying the complex natures of the individuals and the thorny relationship they share.
     Most impressive was Dimmesdale’s final confession; Mr. Rising conveyed the powerful faith that was the ultimate source of both his solace and torment. The audience could feel in his delivery the pent-up voice of faith, guilt, and love, after years of silence. (But more about this later.)
     Roger Chillingworth, played by William Shust, is a difficult character. On one level, he is the classic (even comic) cuckold, the old man with the young wife who cheats on him. On another level, he is a Faustian type of the scholar gone bad, and, on a third, a gothic embodiment of revenge. His character is thus inextricably linked to his complex relationships with both Hester and Arthur. Mr. Shust acquitted himself very well with so difficult a task, although I do wish his demeanor and physical appearance (aside from his costuming) had changed more dramatically from the beginning of the play to the beginning of Act II, mostly to account for the comments about his transformation made by the townspeople. An essential part of his story is the corruption (both spiritual and physical) of an essentially good person by evil intentions and actions. There simply needed to be more evidence of his corruption.
     Hollis Long, who portrays Pearl – the impish, elfish, scarlet-letter-incarnate daughter of Hester – also did well with had an enormously difficult task. Even in the book, there’s an otherworldly knowingness about the character that makes her probably the least recognizably human of the main characters. As such, for a twelve-year-old to make the younger character work is quite a feat. There’s enough of Pearl as an attention-loving, intellectually precocious, only-child in her performance to compensate for a text that almost suggests that she’s hardly real at all.
     The other cast members provide strong support (Ed Bernstein, Charles Merlis, and Brad Brinkley), especially the quartet of townswomen (Shirley DePhillips, Rayah Martin, Kendra Underwood, and Heidi Weinrich) who never think Hester’s quite gotten her just deserts. The costumes by Martin Thaler were gorgeous – all those buttons can’t but recall many of the wonderful early American portraits in the New Britain Museum of American Art! – and crisply set off the actors from the black set with the large Scarlet A that looms over the action.


Spoiler alert: the following includes several important differences between the book and the play. Stop here if you want to be surprised by the differences and how they may affect your understanding of the story.

My review in (longer) short: Still go see The Scarlet Letter!


     There are two key omissions in the script that I think do alter significantly the way an audience will feel about Hester. In Hawthorne’s book, the meaning of the A is always being re-interpreted. At story’s beginning, of course, it is a sign of her sin and the punishment put upon her by her judges. For Pearl, it is the very source of the identity of her mother. The “A” that miraculously appears in the sky the night Arthur ascends the scaffold and thinks he has publicly confessed is interpreted by everyone else who saw its blaze as “angel” (not “adultery”) because that very night former Governor Winthrop had died and presumably gone to heaven.
     Even the “A” on Hester’s bosom, in the book, at least, changes its meaning. Over the course of years, through her dedicated work with the poor and needy of the town, Hester’s “A” comes to mean not “adultery” but “able;” this quite consequential re-interpretation is never mentioned in this production (although it easily could’ve been in the scene in which Roger mentions talk by the magistrates of possibly allowing the “A” to be removed from Hester’s clothing or, better, in another brief townspeople scene).
     Such an omission isn’t too bad by itself. However, when it is coupled with ending the play at Dimmesdale’s death, the book’s focus on Hester’s life with/in/as the scarlet letter is severely undercut. By not having Hester and Pearl leave, and, most importantly, not having Hester return years later and willingly donning on the scarlet letter once again, the play has become more about Dimmesdale’s struggle with sin and redemption than about Hester’s. This act alone speaks volumes about Hawthorne’s understanding of Hester, her sin, and her life.
     Now, I understand creative choices and understand the impracticalities of having to quickly (st)age Hester in later years. The current ending, however, de-emphasizes Hester and, as a result, disappoints the reader of The Scarlet Letter in me.
     The theatre-goer in me is still very glad he attended.

And now, two final quibbles.

Scholarly quibble #1: If the director is going to offer in the program a quotation from an early American sermon apropos of Puritan beliefs, there are many better selections than Jonathan Edwards’ justly famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” if for no other reason than it was written almost a century after the action of the play. Given the rich tradition, not to mention the plentiful supply, of mid-17th-century Puritan sermons, a more chronologically accurate choice might have been made. (Feel free to call me!)

Scholarly quibble #2: Where was the Mistress Hibbins, the real-life sister of Governor Bellingham, who was sentenced to death as a witch? I think a few choice cameos by her in the play, as in Hawthorne’s text, would’ve been illuminating, especially in light of Pearl’s mention of her in the “black man” scene.

All quibbling aside, and for the last time, go see The Scarlet Letter.

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