This oil painting by French artist Hugues Merles (1823-1881) was completed in 1861. Hawthorne considered this rendering to be the definitive illustration of his novel. The painting is in The Walters Arts Museum collection in Baltimore. Note the two male figures beyond Hester’s right shoulder.
In one of the most impressively acted scenes of Plan-B Theatre’s world premiere production of ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ the full force of Hester Prynne’s character (Lauren Noll) is revealed in the line, ‘What we did was of its own consecration. We felt it.’ And, as Reverend Dimmesdale (David Fetzer) hesitates to free himself decisively from the reputational burden that has irreparably weakened him, Hester says with the strongest resolve of personal faith:
‘And we have paid! When will it be enough, Arthur? Leave this life! There is joy still. There is good. Give up the name Arthur Dimmesdale and make yourself another—one you can wear without shame. Begin anew, and become! Write! Preach! Do anything save to lay down and die.’
We know of Dimmesdale’s inevitable doom but within those moments where the four-member cast breathes such emotionally gobsmacking life into Jenifer Nii’s superlative adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 1850 novel, we hope even just for a fleeting instant that Hester’s purpose – simultaneously not only to restore her character but also to protect the man she genuinely loves from shame – will be justifiably fulfilled.
Plan-B’s production proves that one should not underestimate the timeless power of Hawthorne’s genius nor believe that the novel’s language is too ornate or structured for a 21st century audience’s ear. Likewise, preserving the novel’s original 17th century New England setting, Nii delivers a script that is fast paced yet does not conflate the most essential details of the seven years covered in Hawthorne’s original treatment. (For more information, see the Selective Echo preview here.)
Furthermore, the opening night performance – one of the best in recent years for a Plan-B first show – revealed all of the book’s potential intensity. As Hester, Noll compels us to be sympathetic even as we know that her pressure alone cannot and will not be enough for Dimmesdale to be truly sincere in confessing to his responsibilities. Fetzer’s Dimmesdale is a remarkable unfolding – struggling at the outset to remain a manful role-player of his Puritan office but ultimately collapsing under the anguish of his self-inflicted torment. Fetzer’s exquisite reading communicates the minister’s utterly pathetic, fragile spirit.
Fifteen-year-old Claire Wilson, a student at the Salt Lake School of Performing Arts, hits all of the right notes in her Plan-B debut as Pearl, a character that Frank Preston Stearns, one of the best-known Hawthorne scholars, believes was inspired by the author’s daughter. And, Wilson picks up the cues, echoing Stearns’ description of the innocent child – ‘like the sunshine in a dark forest, breaking through the tree-tops and dancing in our pathway.’
Finally, Mark Fossen’s portrayal of Roger Chillingworth is as mindful of humankind’s capacity for spiritually devastating hypocrisy as it is of an actor’s respect for the eloquence of Hawthorne’s language. In frightening realism, Fossen lays bare the morbidity of Chillingworth’s conscience.
With one notable exception, Cluff’s direction hits spot on from the sparseness of the set (Randy Rasmussen, design) to the costumes (Phillip R. Lowe) in creating a believable sense of the unforgiving stark landscape of the granite-bound Puritan environment of nearly 400 years ago. However, the use of several musical excerpts including the ‘Kyrie, Eleison (Lord, have mercy)’ and Gregorio Allegri’s famous ‘Miserere’ is enough of a jarring voice lapse for the overall production which otherwise is a first-rate exercise of authenticity.
This music, of course, was incorporated into the Anglican Church. And, even while the first Pilgrims sang their hymns and psalms often in styles that reminded of the Renaissance madrigals the Puritans quickly stripped away all pretenses of musical literacy. Not until the American Revolution would the musical culture be rehabilitated.
Naturally, this illustrates the deep challenge of finding music from the Puritan period because in England and in the colonies, the Puritans reduced the singing of psalms and hymns to the most rudimentary form without the benefit of instrumental accompaniment. In fact, virtually no compositional milieu can be ascribed to the Puritans who despised virtually every form of music making.
On the other hand, there are some solid choices in Cluff’s sound design work. The whisper at the play’s beginning – ‘hussy hussy hussy…whore whore whore…hussy hussy hussy…whore whore whore…’ – is brilliant as is the whisper ‘holy, holy, holy,’ near the end. These whispers in themselves are musical forms and perfectly suited to the artistic challenge at hand. To be honest, perhaps the best other musical uses would be aleatoric samples of village or forest sounds remixed and dropped randomly between scenes. (NOTE: Readers should see below for an update that I believe quite justifies the director’s musical selections.)
Nevertheless, the production is yet another outstanding example of Plan-B’s facility for contemporarily relevant theater and of its commitment to showcasing the work of Utah-based playwrights, who are boldly carving out a niche that deserves national attention. Rounding out the production crew are Jesse Portillo, lighting; Rapier, props, and Jennifer Freed, stage management.
At press time, there were only 10 tickets left for the production, which runs through Sunday, April 22. Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s producing director, says standby tickets will be sold 30 minutes before each performance, which is at the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. Performances will run Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m; Saturdays, 4 p.m., and Sundays, 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20 for general and $10 for students. For more information, see here.
UPDATE: Regarding the music, I believe this is an excellent explanation regarding the selection of the music. This comes from Rapier and I consider it important enough to share in full:
‘Cheryl [Cluff] selected the music very specifically to bridge the gap between Catholicism/Church of England/Puritanism – to reinforce the idea that, try as they may to exercise religious freedom in the new world and escape from the shadow of religion, they not only brought it with them but intensified it. Ultimately the songs are intended to give us a taste of religious fervor that we can identify with since religion without song makes little to no sense to us here, now.’
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