English 2200 (Dr. P. Reuben)
California State University, Stanislaus
April 17, 1996
The Scarlet Letter
A Critical Review of the CSUS Production
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the CSUS drama department's presentation of The Scarlet Letter. This performance was based on Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel The Scarlet Letter, and was given on March 31 at the CSUS Mainstage Theatre. The cast was comprised primarily of CSUS drama students.
The story takes place in the Puritan village of Boston, Massachusetts during the first half of the 17th Century. As the curtain opens, the imprisoned Hester Prynne (Jennifer Massie) converses with an uneasy Master Brackett (Douglas Cardoza) while fastening a scarlet letter "A" on the bodifice of her dress. Shortly thereafter, Hester is given her release from prison, but not before being forced to stand upon the scaffold in front of the townspeople. As Hester stands with dignity on the scaffold with her three-month-old daughter, Pearl (Katherine Engelhard), on a balcony overlooking the scaffold, Governor Bellingham (Gary Christianson) and the beloved, young Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Colton Dennis) beseech Hester to reveal the identity of her child's father. She refuses.
As Hester endures this public disgrace, Roger Chillingworth (Dave Keymer), an old man new to the village asks, members of the crowd for information about Hester Prynne. Upon closer inspection, Chillingworth comes to the realization that Hester is really his long-lost wife (although we are not told exactly how they became separated). When the distraught Hester and Pearl are returned to jail, Chillingworth, a self-proclaimed physician, comes to calm her and the baby. After he reveals his identity, Chillingworth makes Hester promise to keep his secret and he vows to discover and avenge himself on the man who has wronged him. For the remainder of the story (seven years), Hester and Pearl reside in a small cottage at the edge of the village. Hester uses her needlework skills to support herself and Pearl. Chillingworth, meanwhile, becomes a respected member of the community and the personal physician to Dimmesdale, whose health is failing. Chillingworth treats the minister's physical condition, but suspects some wound or trouble in Dimmesdale's soul is contributing to his declining health. Eventually, Chillingworth discovers that Dimmesdale is Hester's partner in crime, and secretly plots his revenge. However, Chillingworth's plans fall far short of fulfillment when Dimmesdale finally summons the courage to stand on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. It is there, in the presence of the Election Day procession, that the dying Dimmesdale confesses his guilt and tears away his shirt to reveal what appears to be a scarlet "A" on his own breast.
Although this plot was essentially the same as Hawthorne's story, Nagy did take some liberties in developing her script. It was difficult to follow the direction of the play. Some audience members who were only vaguely familiar with the original work, were very much confused about the incidents leading up to the opening scene. It was not until well into the play that the audience was finally "brought up to speed" on the all-important events/circumstances surrounding Hester's "sin." Unfortunately, even after Hester's history was revealed, the storyline took some more unexpected turns. For example, the numerous "philosophical" conversations (one would have sufficed) between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale and the constant, frivolous appearances of Mistress Hibbins only served to slow the pace of the story. Another, more perplexing, aspect was the merging of the characters of Pearl and the omniscient narrator, which was confusing at best. Finally, another obvious deficit was the absence of the passion that has come to characterize Hawthorne's novel. It is indeed the passion of themes such as Puritan guilt, alienation/initiation, pride, and jealousy that makes The Scarlet Letter a timeless classic of American literature.
I would be remiss if did not mention the wonderful use of scenery, lighting, and costumes in this production. These elements were certainly consistent and supportive of the storyline. In addition, I appreciated the efforts of the stage actors. The performance of Katherine Engelhard as Pearl/narrator was particularly enjoyable to watch, especially once I figured out what her roles were. Unfortunately, Engelhard and her comrades were not given much to work with in the form of a script.