The Lesson of The Scarlet Letter

As you walk into the Studio Theater at the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts, as with any play done in a studio space, you expect to see the set subtly lit with the stage lights and vacant, with the actors hiding backstage or in the wings waiting for the show to start. That’s not the case with Plan-B’s THE SCARLET LETTER, by Jenifer Nii (Adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne). Yes, you see the set subtly lit by the stage lights but it’s not empty. Hester Prynne, played by Lauren Noll, stands defiantly at the top of the scaffold holding her baby bundled in a black cloth. Occasionally the baby cried or otherwise fussed, and she would attend to it. I heard one audience member say, “oh! She’s real,” when Hester moved.

Another audience member, perhaps after looking at the program and seeing that there are only four actors in the play wondered aloud, “how are they going to do the crowd scenes?” Looking up at Hester and remembering the beginning of the story, not that insufferably long opening about the surveyor finding the manuscript in an attic that Hawthorne wrote, rather Hester being forced to stand on the scaffold before the town as they called her names and admonished her. I realized that we were that crowd, with all of our eyes upon her and we stood in judgement of her.

The lights dimmed and rose again to reveal the four players, with Hester still in place. The sound was a little strange here, with just three or four distinct voices saying “hussy” and “slut” over and over, layered on top of one another to simulate an entire town. Later, this same sound layering would be used effectively to haunt Hester and Arthur, but for this one moment seemed out of place, and I was glad when the actors finally spoke. To my delight, Pearl (played by Claire Wilson) gave us the introductory narration. I always thought Pearl should tell this story and I’m glad Jenifer Nii saw that as well.

Before I get too far into my critique, I just want to stop and talk about the set. Like most of Randy Rasmussen’s sets, it’s powerful in its minimalism, yet has extremely accurate elements. Such as the shelving used to represent both Hester’s workroom an Arthur’s office. But the scaffold is a true work of subtle art. It sits at a diagonal, rather than facing directly out. At the top, there’s a planked wall on the right side (audience right) that seems to be supported by an obvious folding stage brace. As I looked at it (it’s center stage and the highest point, plus there’s an actor standing up there as we wait for the show to start) I realized that the wall was cut into a cross, and that the visibly folding brace formed two letter “A”s that stood in front of and against the cross. It’s a beautiful representation of the main characters. Held back (in their minds) from Grace by their sins standing so starkly in the way.

Jenifer Nii cut Hawthorne’s story down to its base elements and limited it to the four central characters. According to the producers, the script is about 50% Hawthorne’s words. The other 50% is so seamless I had trouble figuring out where Hawthorne left off and Nii came in.

We start with a scene between Hester and Roger Chillingworth, played by Mark Fossen. Fossen plays Chillingworth as a disguised devil, and indeed the script often leads us to surmise that’s who really represents. I enjoyed the quiet calm Fossen maintained as the other players reacted emotionally. However, in this first scene I would have enjoyed seeing him lose more of his well-groomed control and really show us the pain that Hester’s actions and rejection have caused him. It might have let us see a more human side, rather than just seeing him only as a conniving devil waiting to get his minister.

That minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, played by David Fetzer, is remarkable in his performance, showing us an ever weakening man who hides behind piety in order to hide his worldly shame and guilt. In a scene where Chillingworth tries to coax a confession out of the minister we get a startling moment. Chillingworth is going on about a black weed he found growing on an unmarked grave, whom he presumes is the grave of a sinner, and that the weed was the dead man’s sin sprouting. Dimmesdale responds that its more likely the result of a careless gardener than some sign from beyond the grave. I don’t recall if this is in the original Hawthorne story but it’s effective nonetheless. The man of science, the doctor, finding a divine purpose behind a weed, while the minister makes the rational assumption.

Indeed, Pearl’s final speech mentions “agnostics and non-believers”, which further lends a credence to Dimmesdale’s rationality. His illness becomes obviously self-inflicted, rather than a curse from God. More and more we see through Pearl’s eyes just how the two main characters have brought themselves to their fates. Hester’s isolation seems as much her choice as it does the town’s. Pearl runs in fear from Arthur whenever he hides behind his piety, yet begs for him to acknowledge her (stand in the light with us).

Pearl’s entire performance is beautifully done by newcomer Claire Wilson. Although a high school student in reality, her natural impishness made her seem younger, and yet it was more effective to have a teen admonish the other characters for their behavior. Where as in a small child it would have seemed precocious, with a woman saying it, it made us all take pause and listen. In contrast, Hester’s attempts at controlling Pearl seem even more futile than they would if she were played by a child. It’s a smart casting decision from director Cheryl Cluff, and one that continued to pay off as the play progressed.

Lauren Noll as Hester was natural and giving in her performance, particularly in the scenes with Wilson and Fetzer, but seemed to be  uncomfortable with her delivery of the language, which Nii left unaltered from the original Hawthorne. Still, what she said with her face spoke volumes, and her moment with Fetzer’s Arthur, where she begs him to forgive her was heartbreaking.

When I consider the recent laws passed in this country, laws that seem to want only to shame and humiliate women, I can see just how relevant this story is. Indeed, although Cluff chose to set the play in its original 17th century setting, this could have just as easily been adapted to a modern setting. The conflict between personal freedom and puritanical authority is ever present in our society today, it’s just chosen a new form of manifestation.

As of this writing, there are sill 32 tickets available for THE SCARLET LETTER, and you need to see this one. Who knows, you might learn more about the message of the story than you did when you studied it in school. I know I did.

Jenifer Nii’s THE SCARLET LETTER, produced by the Plan-B Theatre Company, performs April 12 – 22 in the Studio Theater at the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available through arttix.org. For more information, please go to planbtheatre.org.

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2 Responses to The Lesson of The Scarlet Letter

  1. Just a heads up – only 26 tickets total are available for the rest of the run of THE SCARLET LETTER As of 10:20am on Friday, April 13.

  2. All performances of Plan-B Theatre’s THE SCARLET LETTER are now sold out. So…we will be selling stand-by tickets in the Rose Wagner box office 15 minutes before show time. All remaining performances will start at :05 past the posted show time – unoccupied seats will be forfeited to stand-by ticket holders. Unfortunately at this time we can only sell stand-by tickets in person.

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