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The Scarlet Letter

by Rich See

I'm fond of decomposition.

Elizabeth Chomko, Rahaleh Nassri and James O. Dunn
E. Chomko, R. Nassri and J. O. Dunn
(Photo: Paul Schuster)

Rorschach Theatre creates a touching and relevant look at Puritanical values in its newest production, Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. With a wonderfully child-like set, director Jenny McConnell Frederick and her cast have cut to the essence of Hawthorne's classic story, whose heroin has become an icon about transforming pain into love and emerging from life's hardships through sheer inner perseverance.

Hawthorne's tale (written in 1850) is about Hester Prynne, a young woman who married a much older man in Amsterdam shortly after her parents died. When he moves to the new world and then sends for Hester, she arrives to find he has disappeared and no one has scene or heard of him. It is assumed he died, but since his death is uncertain, she is still considered married in the eyes of the law and the church, which just happen to be co-mingled in Boston during the early 1600's. After two years of waiting, Hester falls in love with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and he with her. Their love eventually produces a child, Pearl, and when it becomes apparent that Hester is pregnant, she is imprisoned for her crime of adultery. While the punishment for adultery is death, the Reverend admonishes in her favor and so her sentence is commuted to wearing the red letter "A" across her chest, for the rest of her life. In effect, being branded for her love.

Three months after Pearl is born, Hester is brought before a tribunal in the town's square, where it is demanded that she declare the name of the child's father for all to hear. At this point, realizing her own inner strength, she chooses to protect Arthur, who will most likely be sentenced to death, and refuses to provide the much sought name. On top of this refusal to abide by the town's wishes, she also has embroidered an amazing letter A out of red and gold thread -- thus turning her punishment into a badge of honor. In Hawthorne's book her seamstress work is second to none and the letter A, although only 3 and a half inches in height, stuns the townspeople with its elaborate beauty and stark refusal to be coerced.

On the same day as her public shaming, Hester's husband, now known as Roger Chillingworth, returns and vows to seek revenge upon his wife's lover. Meanwhile, Minister Dimmesdale is stricken by a mysterious illness that slowly wastes his strength, while seemingly stirring his abilities in the pulpit. When Roger Chillingworth realizes that Arthur is the father of Pearl, he seeks to destroy the reverend by becoming Arthur's mentor, confidant, and personal physician. Seven years pass as Hester and Pearl live on the edge of the town, Hester sewing for people and tending to the needs of the poor and downtrodden, while Pearl grows up as an intuitive wild-child, seemingly the physical personification of Hester's inner strength and resolve.

Phyllis Nagy has added some wonderful symbolism to Hawthorne's book, removed some of the religious perspective that flows through his tale, and chosen the spirited Pearl as the narrator of the story. Her adaptation flows well, adds insightful humor, and creates an interesting dialogue when used as a window from which to examine our own country's seeming swing to more conservative viewpoints. If the first act holds your attention more than the shorter second, this is simply for the reason that Nagy has given so little to really like in the character of Arthur Dimmesdale. The reverend becomes a bit of a whiner making it hard to fathom Hester's constant devotion. And if you haven't read the The Scarlet Letter, then I would suggest looking up a quick summary on the web since this production does not provide a great deal of background information on early 17th century Boston. Some story notes in the program would be helpful for setting the mood and easing into the Puritans' world.

Director Jenny McConnell Frederick has pulled together a very good cast and utilized Nagy's symbolism throughout the staging. Ed Grims' set is a creative work in foreboding childhood imagination. Pearl's cemetery playground is center stage with the dark woods just behind it. To the side is the village with its ever present scaffold, seemingly an oppressive symbol of society over the individual. Debra Kim Sivigny's costume designs are also impressive. Pearl is dressed like a red wood nymph, circulating throughout the stage and taunting the adults around her. Roger Chillingworth looks the part of a wild mountain man, while Mistress Hibbins, the local witch, is suitably dressed in black, representing her own inner heart. Sound designer Matthew Frederick has utilized an interesting array of alternative songs throughout the production, which goes along with Hester's desire that she and Pearl be allowed to live their lives without interference from the "good folk" of Boston.

Within the cast, Elizabeth Chomko, jumping between player and narrator, keeps us constantly engaged in the story as the free-spirited Pearl. Believable as the child and as the adult, she helps the flow of the production move gracefully from scene to scene. Rahaleh Nassri's Hester is a touching, realistic depiction of a conflicted heroine caught between her own inner voice, the society around her, and the desire to survive. As Arthur Dimmesdale, James O. Dunn III may be a victim of his own success. He is so convincing as the afflicted Arthur that you wonder what Hester sees in him. And yet, when the character finally makes amends for his silence, Mr. Dunn shines just as equally in bringing a new strength to the minister. Eerie and seemingly reeking of malignance, Scott McCormick does a terrific job as the healer Roger Chillingworth, though you are never sure if he is poisoning Arthur or trying to keep the young man alive to torment him further.

Filling out the cast, Celia Madeoy does a great job as the zealous gossipmonger and Satanist, Mistress Hibbins. She seems to be having great fun with the role. Paul McLane creates an officious and staid Governor Bellingham, the man who decides Hester's ultimate fate. And Jason Basinger Linkins fills out the cast as the amiable jailor Bracket.

Watching The Scarlet Letter, one realizes that to some extent we all are both the Mistress Hibbins and the Hester Prynnes of Hawthorne's world. And four hundred years later, there are still people, across the globe, actively wielding the image of "a loving God" as a weapon to maintain a desired social order. Which always, conveniently, seems to position these same people at the top layer of society judging everyone else. Maybe that's why The Scarlet Letter is called a classic...

The Scarlet Letter
by Phyllis Nagy adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick
with Elizabeth Chomko, Rahaleh Nassri, Jason Basinger Linkins, Paul McLane, Celia Madeoy, James O. Dunn III, Scott McCormick
Set Design: Ed Grims
Costume Design: Debra Kim Sivigny
Lighting Design: David C. Ghatan
Sound Design: Matthew Frederick
Fight Choreography: Grady Weatherford
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
A production of Rorschach Theatre
The Sanctuary Theatre, Calvary Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Road, Washington, DC
Telephone: tickets 1-800-494-8497; info 202-452-5538
THUR-SAT @8, SAT-SUN @5; $12-$18
Opening 02/12/05 closing 03/12/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 02/12/05 performance
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