Hellfire and Brimstone, 'A' Woman Scorned, But Little Fury
The Scarlet Letter by Phyllis Nagy
Adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Directed by Jeremy Johnson, Scenic Designer Janie Howland, Costume Designer Nicole Watson, Lighting Designer Russ Swift, Sound Designer/Original Music Composer Nathan Leigh, Production Stage Manager Steven R. Espach, The Scarlet Letter artwork by Emily Bawn
CAST: Mark Cartier as Master Brackett, Eve Kagan as Pearl, Walter Mantani as Roger Chillingworth, Dee Nelson as Hester Prynne, Dale Place as Governor Bellingham, Lisa Tucker as Mistress Hibbins, Victor Warren as Arthur Dimmesdale
Performances through January 28, 2007 at Foothills Theatre Company Box Office 508-754-4018 or www.foothillstheatre.com
In an era when one out of two marriages end in divorce, when a large percentage of couples cohabitate before or instead of getting married, and many women are single mothers by choice, the story of a woman who is shunned by society for adultery and bearing a child out of wedlock represents a simpler, bygone time. Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is perhaps not as compelling to an audience informed by today's mores and moral codes.
This is the challenge in mounting a stage production of Hawthorne's work and, in choosing the Phyllis Nagy adaptation, the Foothills has faltered in the attempt. Nagy (she adapted The Talented Mr. Ripley for the screen) has been credited with imposing a contemporary twist in her telling of The Scarlet Letter while maintaining the timeless themes of guilt, sin, and redemption. However, in using the device of the illegitimate child Pearl as narrator, she tells too much and shows too little. It is unsettling to have Pearl appear first as a baby and later as a seven-year old, talking about the very adult behavior of her mother Hester Prynne and the "dark man in the woods."At the very least, the audience should develop some sympathy for Pearl for all that she has supposedly witnessed. Yet, she garners little because she is, as described by Hawthorne, "an imp of evil" who is outspoken and off-putting. Kudos to Eve Kagan for her portrayal that was dripping with perversity.
The story begins with Hester being publicly shamed for committing adultery and bearing her love child when her husband was presumed lost at sea. Upon his return, she refuses to name the father and is punished by being forced to wear the scarlet "A" on her chest. When her husband Roger Chillingworth discovers the identity of the father, he befriends the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in order to exact his revenge. By posing as a doctor, Chillingworth "treats" the frail minister who seems to be suffering greatly for his sins.
There is no shortage of guilt and sin among the players, but we are supposed to believe that Hester redeems herself by the end when all that is shown is that she makes a beautiful pair of gloves for the Governor. Why is she seen as a great heroine of American literature? Nagy fails to illustrate that point. Dee Nelson tries to infuse the character with some strength, but it plays as resignation. Perhaps it is due to the lack of redemption that the characters seem to be short of energy and hope, slogging through their dreary, puritanical existence. In the audience, it felt like work to watch.
While the set was stark, providing a visual metaphor for the cold reality of Hester's life, Nicole Watson's costuming was spot-on to give the feel of the seventeenth century. Lights, sound, and music created additional effects to punctuate the storyline. Moments of levity lightened the mood, but this is primarily a dark tale which could not be cured by lightning flashes and thunder claps. A talented cast made a noble effort, but something was lost in the direction.