Adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne by Phyllis Nagy
Directed by Rick Lombardo
At the New Repertory Theatre
Newton, MA (617)332-1646 -- Through December 22nd

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The New Rep's production of "The Scarlet Letter" is the first demonstration of the talent and taste of the company's new artistic director, Rick Lombardo. It represents an exciting choice: the re-imagining by an up-and-coming woman playwright of the classic Puritan tale in which Nathaniel Hawthorne examined the mores of his New England forebears. What has Phyllis Nagy made of the story? How will Lombardo utilize the resources available to the New Rep? Will the new artistic director be able to cast from the local talent pool, and meld his actors into a unified ensemble and a consistant style? The answers to all but the first question are reassuring, and bode well for the future of Newton's Equity theatre.

Janie Fliegel, whose sets for local companies have been a series of small miracles, produces another one for "The Scarlet Letter" -- a flexible and suggestive performance space that is a constant source of aesthetic delight through the use of sensuous "natural" materials for abstract effects of location and mood. Franklin Meisser's lighting and David Wilson's sound design are interesting in their own right and beautifully integrated with the production's performance style. I have some reservations about the costume design by Judy Staicer but the costumes are certainly interesting to look at, and they serve very well to place the metaphorical aspect of each character.

The story of "The Scarlet Letter" has the fascination of prime gossip or a fable, and may very well be familiar even to people who have never read Hawthorne's novel or seen any of the previous dramatizations. Hester Prynne --Hawthorne says that the facts of her history are documented --was sent to the colony in Boston Massachusetts by her husband, who then disappeared. During her husband's long absence and presumed death, Hester had an affair with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and became pregnant. Under Puritan law, both fornication and adultery were crimes as well as sins, and there was Biblical precedent for putting adulterers to death. Hester bravely refused to name her partner in sin, sparing him the disgrace and punishment consequent upon discovery. But through the merciful intercession of Rev. Dimmesdale with the governor, Hester was sentenced to a brief period of public shame on the town scaffold, and afterwards required to wear the letter "A" embroidered in scarlet thread upon her bosom. Hester's lost husband then shows up disguised as a physician called Chillingworth, ferrets out the identity of Hester's lover and "befriends" him with an intimacy that assures that Dimmesdale's conscience will torment him constantly. Hester raises her "Wild child", Pearl, and demonstrates by her conduct that she does not accept the community's judgment of her. She expects that some day Dimmesdale will claim her, and that they will flee to some un-Puritan place where they can live as the man and wife they are by the laws of affinity. Dimmesdale does, finally, confess -- but his hidden scarlet "A" is inscribed on a heart too weak to live once it is revealed. Hester lives on, and by the time she is a very old woman, many in the community are convinced by her exemplary life that the red "A" on her dress stands for "Angel".

Lombardo's staging of "The Scarlet Letter" does indeed use local actors, and under his direction they perform with a fierce and confident intensity. Dee Nelson plays Hester Prynne as a woman who is amazingly whole-hearted, as certain of the validity of her own instincts as if she had been raised, like Hawthorne's wife Sophia, among the American Romantic Utopians of the early 1800's, and not in the Puritan England of two centuries before. She is lovely, tempting men in perfect innocence, and defiant and dignified in the face of all humiliation. Hawthorne apparently thought such a female creature was natural if rare, and felt the need of no detailed psychology or sociology to explain her -- although he also found such women terrifying. Guiltless herself, and making no claims or demands, Hester drives both her mates to death and to the destruction of their own immortal souls. Phyllis Nagy, too, finds Hester seamless, and can only record her actions and her effects on those around her. Nagy does add a pinch of fleshly longing and a hint of modern healthy-minded disapproval of ambivalence to Hester's engulfing love in a scene of tearful reunion with her feeble lover, and Nelson incorporates it all with power to spare.

Richard McElvain's Chillingworth is both sharp-edged and rounded-- but then, McElvain has the advantage of playing the character whose type is most familiar to present-day audiences: the obsessive controlling male out to punish those who have diminished him. The man has been living outside the Puritan community, among the native tribes, and because of this he is not forced to live out the social identity of Hester's wronged husband. As Chillingworth, he has the luxury of choice, and consciousness that he has chosen badly lends the character a sardonic wit. McElvain shows him amused by his own vengeful posturing. Those around him are simpler folk, unable to appreciate his theatrical flair: his puns and allusions pass right over their heads. (At the matinee I attended, those simpler folk included his audience, who refused to laugh at some really outrageous lines. After all, "The Scarlet Letter" is serious, a classic.)

Dimmesdale is the character who has the least claim on modern sympathies. He is a hypocrite and a coward, and so estranged from his sexuality that one can only assume that Hester made the first move--and the second, and the third, too. (When Nagy's Hester lets down her hair in the forest and pants "Take me," Dimmesdale looks blank and asks, "Where?") In Hawthorne's novel, the minister's sexual sin is a source of power and grace: from his self-condemnation Dimmesdale has learned how to preach to other tormented hearts, and bring them to repentance and healing. Hawthorne pretty clearly identified the preacher's powers with his own powers as an artist, and the preacher's sinful secret is just one of the more overt instances of the dark center to which the author turns again and again for his heroes and his themes. But we live in an era with little patience for suffering, and Nagy is very hard on poor Dimmesdale. Stephen Benson's minister moans and whines and sobs and digs up roots in the graveyard; but he is never allowed to make a case for himself, or to show us what Hester sees in him.

Three other characters stand in for the entire colonial society: There is the aristocratic politician Governor Bellingham, played by Britisher Tony Carrigan in a comfortable Masterpiece Theatre style that --at least temporarily -- makes the backgrounds and accents of all the other denizens of Boston suspect: didn't they all come from England, and at approximately the same time? There's Bellingham's sister Mistress Hibbins (Andrea Aurora), a combination of the demented old and ugly devil-worshipping Hibbins of the novel with some symbolic character of Nagy's devising: a seductive, wicked, bountifully beautiful grand dame of a witch in a scandalously low-cut red-orange silk gown. This character seems to have wandered in from some dreadful Victorian melodrama, and although I cringed every time Aurora's Hibbins came flouncing onto the stage and could never credit a line of her dialogue as human speech, I hesitate to condemn the actress. It seems to me that Nagy's Hibbins is unplayable as written. And finally there's Brackett (Adam Zahler), a sympathetic member of the lower orders apparently lifted from Shakespeare, who as sexton and jailer shows the errant lovers simple human kindness.

The strongest choice Nagy has made in her adaptation is to appoint Pearl as focus and narrator, first as Hester's grown daughter describing her own birth in prison as if she could remember it, and then joining in the scenes that take place seven years later as a wild, perverse and precocious love child, unsocialized because ostracized by the community-- her mother's treasure and punishment in one. Pearl is Hawthorne's astonishing creation, based on his own daughter Una. She is a real child, observed with ruthless clarity, and not one of the miniature grown-ups or the sentimental figures of innocence that passed for girl children in literature up till then. Like Una Hawthorne, Pearl is raised by a romantic mother free from Puritan schooling and Puritan strictures. N. Rose Liberace plays Pearl, child and adult, as pure id, babbling out terrible truths which society would prefer to ignore, truths which her fond mother turns to favor and to prettiness. But though Pearl was shocking in 1850, and her creator can be excused if after setting her down he was unable to decide whether or not he had produced a monster, this kind of wild child of the loosened patriarchy is familiar now. There are Pearls in every American town, in every street, almost in every house.

By deconstructing Hawthorne, by freeing his story from its historical trappings and centering it on the sensual perceptions of the daughter rather than on the spiritual strivings of the adult males, Nagy has assumed the prophetic mantle of the muses. We expect to be shown what it all means --- to us, now. But this expectation is disappointed. The play doesn't end with a revelatory bang, but with a whimper. The moral terms of both 1600 and 1800 have been emptied out, and the characters defined by them become empty, too: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.