An awkward adaptation

Times change, but the frailties of the human heart . . . not so much.
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 13, 2009


scarlet main
WHIRLING CONTRADICTIONS: Steve Kidd and Jeanine Kane in The Scarlet Letter.

Times change, but the frailties of the human heart . . . not so much. That overworked muscle can be haplessly generous or slammed-door shut. Nathaniel Hawthorne's mid-19th century novel The Scarlet Letter, which takes place two centuries before, still stands as a perceptive examination of the eternal internal battle between love and hate.

The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is staging Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of this classic of American literature (through June 7), directed by Judith Swift. The playwright's 1994 transmutation of the story takes on a difficult task: making archaic attitudes real for a modern audience. Despite adventurous work in the Gamm production, this play's internal conflicts tear it apart.

Nagy's job shouldn't have been impossible. After all, the Puritan mindset of intolerance is essentially the same as that of today's Taliban, just as their garb was the same black, and we easily feel self-righteous about Islamist injustice in Kandahar.

Take a look at the Hawthorne story and you'll understand the opportunity and the problem. When we first see Hester Prynne (Jeanine Kane), she is leaving jail with her newborn daughter, the product of an adulterous relationship for which she must now and forever wear a scarlet capital A. Her indomitable spirit, and perhaps her tragic flaw of pride, is on display as well as the elaborate embroidery, complete with gold thread, with which she has made her badge of shame unavoidably admirable.

Her daughter Pearl, her "pearl of great price" in the biblical reference, is acted by Casey Seymour Kim, occasionally narrating the goings-on as a seven-year-old who has become curious about her father's identity. Also wanting to know is a man who has come to Boston and not revealed that he is Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth (Alan F. Hawkridge), rather than just her potion-dispensing doctor. But Hester keeps the secret that the father of the child is the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (Steve Kidd), whose usual stance is slightly bent over, hand on his heart and wincing as though undergoing a perpetual coronary.

Hester explains to Pearl that the minister has his hand on his heart because he has a lot to think about, whereupon the child asks why he doesn't instead keep his hand on his head. Badda-boom. Humor — not often as successful as that — frequently leavens the unfolding melodrama. That may sound like a good thing, but it's the major flaw in this adaptation. Since this is supposed to be telling Hawthorne's tale rather than a parallel modern one, we needed to be brought down, down, down into the depths of these dark concerns. Instead, we are constantly being lifted above them, as though the playwright is frightened of their portents.

Hester's refusal to sink into despair, fueled by her love for Pearl and Dimmesdale, is an essential foil to the dark doings, but Hawthorne's tale is predominantly a journey down into soul rather than up into spirit.

Being a melodrama, this story can't convincingly be told to us flat-out anymore than could Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Sorrows of Young Werther. (Perhaps the device of Dimmesdale hallucinating — he imagines being unmasked and mocked — could have saved this play if used more often.) But ironic distance doesn't work here as a solution. The real irony is that the approach removes us from the heartfelt feelings that could connect us across time.

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