Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Wives of The Dead"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


by Todd Hearon
adapted from the short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
directed by Rosemarie Ellis

Sylvia…..Kara Crowe Elizabeth…..Phyllis Rittner

If you know and are fond of Hawthorne's story, you may be doubly disappointed with Mr. Hearon's play: (1) only the title and a thread of plot remains, and (2) it's a dull play. Not a badly written one, mind you – a dull one, despite its having won a prize several years ago.

Hawthorne's story is set in a seaport town in the Bay Province during the 18th century, when the French and Indian War was raging in the wilderness. Two young wives, Margaret and Mary, sit in their shared parlor absorbing the news that their husbands are reported to have been killed in battle. Each widow retires to her bed, only to be awakened by a man beneath her window – an innkeeper, for Margaret; a former suitor, for Mary – who tells her that her husband is indeed still alive. Can the good news be true? Or is each woman still asleep, dreaming the same happy dream? Hawthorne leaves it up for the reader to decide. The fascination of the story is in its cinematic narrative, as if Hawthorne was prophetically writing one of the world's first screenplays, with slow tracking shots, subtle dissolves and gradual close-ups. Think of Ingmar Bergman's CRIES AND WHISPERS, with its ticking clocks and haunted faces, or Bibi Anderson rising from her bed to join Liv Ulmann in a nocturnal embrace in Bergman's PERSONA, and you will see what I mean.

For his adaptation, Mr. Hearon has updated Hawthorne's story, renaming the women (now sisters) as "Sylvia" and "Elizabeth" and turning their husbands into reported casualties of the Gulf War. I have no (real) quarrel with that; where Mr. Hearon falls down is in his stretching a five-minute read with little dialogue into a full-length play (without intermission). At first glance, his WIVES seems to be a Well-Made Play paying heed to the Unities of Action, Time and Setting, but it is really a Tick-Tock Play where everything swings back and forth in predictable opposites: Sylvia (Tick) is stocky; Elizabeth (Tock) is thin as a rail. Sylvia (Tick) is rowdy; Elizabeth (Tock) is prissy. Sylvia (Tick) boozes it up; Elizabeth (Tock) sips her tea. Sylvia (Tick) married a charming ne'er-do-well; Elizabeth (Tock) married a….I'm not quite sure, but for balance's sake, I assume he's the Boy Next Door. Sylvia (Tick) preferred their father's company; Elizabeth (Tock) is very much their mother's child. No doubt Mr. Hearon hopes to create high drama by having these women collide, and there are indeed many a rug-chewing revelation, confrontation and climax. But a pendulum can only swing first one way and then another, and here it sets the play's rhythm: a comic moment (Tick) is followed by a bitter one (Tock). Or vice versa. A heated duet (Tick) is followed by an aria (Tock), with one woman declaiming downstage, while the other sits upstage, respectfully listening in Reader's Theatre fashion. Or vice versa. No surprises are to be found, not even in the sudden role reversal where Elizabeth finally, finally reveals the thorny card long hidden up her sleeve – but, then, pendulums can swing counterclockwise, too, if tinkered with. Soap opera settles in like a fog: these war widows register none of the shock or denial that comes with the recent announcement of a loved one's death – which Hawthorne beautifully captures in his opening paragraphs. Oh, the missing husbands are mentioned now and then (I picture Mr. Hearon at his writing desk, murmuring, "Oh, yeah….Hawthorne…."), but the bulk of the play consists of the sisters hashing and rehashing their relationships with their late father and now-committed mother. I know first-hand how death can bring out the worst in people, but try as I might, I cannot find a link between parents and husbands, unless sibling rivalry forces Elizabeth to Tell All in part confession, part retaliation, upon which immediately follows (off-stage) news that one of the missing husbands has been found, and maybe, just maybe….? Move over, Hawthorne, and give O. Henry a crack at bat.

Ironically, the play ends with the betrayed sister sitting alone in shock; a shock parallel to the emotions felt at the beginning of Hawthorne's story. And now Mr. Hearon's play should truly begin….

Luckily Mr. Hearon and his director Rosemary Ellis have found two good brickmakers for their straw. Kara Crowe gets the lion(ess)'s share of laughs, hamming it up as Sylvia (though Mr. Heardon has her recite some high-blown speeches that are out of sync with her character), and Phyllis Rittner is nicely and poignantly contrasted as Elizabeth. Again, Tick and Tock; but, blessedly, two different sounds – bass and flute. The cozy little setting has been designed

by "Wives Crew", and cozy it is, but Kevin Kidd has come up with the oddest lighting scheme to be seen in some time: Operation Room White, Drowned Man Blue, and Waxy Yellow Build-Up – and some of his cues don't always mesh with the non-action happening onstage.

To obtain a copy of Hawthorne's short story, go to: It's a haunting little tale. You, too, might want to adapt it…..

"Wives of the Dead" (8 – 23 February)
Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON
1(617) 353-5899

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