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The Scarlet Letter

Footsteps Theatre Company

By Justin Hayford

If you're like me, you had to choke down The Scarlet Letter in high school, convinced that your English teacher--nay, the entire English department--was as humorless and unhip as the dreary Puritans scuttling around Hawthorne's 17th-century Boston. You probably remember Hester Prynne's badge of adultery, Reverend Dimmesdale's paroxysms of guilt, little Pearl's unbridled brattiness, long expositional pages with lots of big words, and precious little else. And if you're like me, you'd be hard-pressed to remember anything that actually happens in the story.

Well, your philistinism has paid off: you're the perfect audience member for Footsteps Theatre's fascinating Scarlet Letter. Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel plays like a murder mystery; it seems she's hoping you won't remember all the juicy details, since she delights in disclosing them with methodical care.

Of course, she's just following Hawthorne's lead. This is no murder mystery, however, but a birth mystery: who is the father of Hester's adulterously conceived child? Hawthorne begins at the scene of the crime--or, more in keeping with Puritan times, the scene of the punishment--as Hester is forced to stand upon a scaffold in the public square while the good women of the town gawk and various officials demand that she name her child's father. She refuses, but through a savvy orchestration of minute details Hawthorne gradually lets his readers in on Hester's secret. Similarly, when a malevolent, misshapen stranger appears in the crowd and locks eyes with Hester, Hawthorne takes his sweet time revealing this monstrosity to be her long-lost husband.

Nagy remains faithful to Hawthorne's meticulous plotting, re-creating the kind of suspense that makes the book so compelling--at least for people not in high school. At the same time she throws Hawthorne's hyper-literary verbosity to the wind. Her stripped-down script is almost entirely lacking in editorial flourishes, save for Pearl's occasional bouts of sardonic narration. Like David Mamet, Nagy turns her characters into truth-seeking missiles who never waste a word. For example, when Hester's husband--who's renamed himself Roger Chillingworth--visits her in prison and reveals his plot to make the torment of her as yet unidentified lover his "life's work," he doesn't need Hawthorne's paragraph of exhortations and admonitions to keep her quiet. He simply says, "You will not reveal me to anyone." Nagy dramatizes Chillingworth's perverse power over Hester so convincingly that a nod from him is all we need to understand her acquiescence.

Under Dale Heinen's thoughtful direction, Nagy's economical drama achieves an immediacy rarely found in theatrical adaptations of literary classics. Nagy gives the actors almost no opportunities for big emotional outbursts, but Heinen's surefooted cast don't need them. Thankfully, this is not an evening of operatic passion but of fastidious brain work. As Evert A. Duyckinck described Hawthorne's book the month it was published, this play is "a drama in which thoughts are acts." Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth are all trying to navigate the safest path through a morally explosive landscape, and it's only in the other two characters that each can find his or her own bearings. These people have no time to waste showing us how tormented they are; they're too busy trying to achieve some sort of absolution through one another--although in Chillingworth's case, it's an absolution born of vengeance. As in all good acting, any emotional torment here is a by-product of the action.

Like Nagy, Heinen and her design team have reduced everything to its essence. The forest in which Hester and Dimmesdale have their climactic rendezvous, for example, is just four birch trunks stripped of their branches. They look more like road markers than trees (an appropriate metaphor given the characters' arduous psychological journeys during their walks in the woods). In like manner, the actors never "fill out" their characters, rarely engaging in unnecessary stage business to convince us they really are 17th-century Bostonians. In fact, the seven-year-old Pearl is played by an adult who makes no attempt to act like a child. Pearl's role in forwarding the drama is simply to demand the truth. Whether she's "childlike" while doing so is immaterial (and after all, there are few things more excruciating in the theater than adults trying to behave like children). The Footsteps cast seems to understand that a character's function drives a scene, not his or her physical similarity to some vague Hawthornian ideal.

Heinen's essentialist approach relieves this production of a potentially crushing burden of proof. This isn't Hawthorne, as Nagy's myriad deviations from the plot make clear. And Heinen isn't out to convince us otherwise: we never forget that we're in a theater watching contemporary actors stand in for nearly mythic characters. Sure, this ensemble could use another log or two in its collective fire. Nothing here thrills or overwhelms. But the Footsteps troupe has thought through nearly every moment. And if you're like me, smarts onstage go a long way toward making an evening in the theater worthwhile.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.

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