Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Scarlet Letter"

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note: entire contents copyright 1996 by Larry Stark

"The Scarlet Letter"

by Phyllis Nagy
Adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Directed by Rick Lombardo

Set Design by Janie Fleigel
Lighting Design by Frank Meissner
Costume Design by Judy Staicer
Sound Design by David Wilson
Props by Tish Leahy
Production Stage Manager Johnie Steele

Hester Prynne...............Dee Nelson
Master Brackett............Adam Zahler
Pearl.................N. Rose Liberace
Governor Bellingham......Tony Carrigan
Arthur Dimmesdale.......Stephen Benson
Mistress Hibbins..........Andrea Arora
Roger Chillingworth...Richard McElvain

The small thrust-stage of the New Repertory Theatre squeezes most of the action right into the audience's laps. And since Phyllis Nagy's adaptation squeezes everything irrelevant out of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" the result is two and a half hours of raw passion unavoidably close enough to touch.

Nagy has stripped away Hawthorne's tedious, tortured sentences (which prevented me from reading past page 20 the three times I tried); Janie Fleigel's set jettisons any descriptive realism (it's a scaffold because the actors SAY it's a scaffold); Judy Staicer's costumes and Elizabeth Eisenbraun's props identify the period, but only with carefully chosen, almost emblematic accents and details. What remains is the distilled essence of people wrestling with their mutual destiny.

The play's narration is from a young woman (N. Rose Liberace) who is Hester's grown daughter, Pearl, who steps into the action as a wild, precocious, perceptive seven-year old not as a grown-up imitating a child, but as a grown-up demonstrating her memories, sacrificing detail for essence.

Stephen Benson's Reverend Dimmesdale is the physical wrack of a man eaten away by his unconfessed guilt, taking potions from a "doctor" he may even know is poisoning him. He argues philosophy with this Chillingworth, a contemptuously cynical "man of science" who hides the fact that he is Hester's wronged husband --- a patient personification of pure, malevolent vengeance.

Amid all this, Dee Nelson plays Hester Prynne as a woman totally defined by her sin --- not the Adultery for which she wears that letter, but her silence about the accomplice in the crime. She never seems to be protecting this eloquently pious fraud but simply waiting for him, at long last, to acknowledge his love for her.

Andrea Aurora's Mistress Hibbins, in stark contrast, is sinful sex at its laughing, devil-worshipping wickedest. She tempts Pearl to doubt her mother's purity, tempts Dimmesdale to hedonistic romps in the woods, and would tempt Hester to break her silence if she ever believed she had a chance at it.

The entire city of Boston here is represented by only two other people, in addition to Mistress Hibben. There is the pompous moralist Governor Bellingham, played by Tony Carrigan, and his humble, honest jailor Master Brackett, played by Adam Zahler. Though they are outside the main maelstrom, the commentary each makes on the main characters illuminates them all the more.

Much of the power of this production comes simply from the conviction with which these actors say their lines, but there are technical details as well. Several scenes take place in a graveyard created by three pop-up gravestones that push the actors mere inches from the first-row seats. David Wilson's sound design creates a tempest in the beginning and again at the end of the play with gnashing sheets of thunder that have an almost physical presence in the theater, while the wild, peaceful woods are underscored by almost imperceptible birdsong. Frank Meissner's lights can drench the set with golden sunlight on a cue in the text, and hit a face with a pin-spot with split-second timing.

And this is definitely not a show in which the actors appear to have made it up as they went along. The dreamy, expressionistic economy, the shock of image after idea after insight, even the tension-relieving titters, are totally under control. Even in the anti-climactic epilogue, where the power of these events seems to dribble away in the obliterating sands of time, the hand of Artistic Director Rick Lombardo shapes everything.

I will not say this production makes me want to run at Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece a fourth time. Instead, it makes me feel that, now, I won't have to.



The First Congregational Church
Walnut & Lincoln Streets, NEWTON HIGHLANDS
till 22 December

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide