The Scarlet Letter is a play about human happiness and fulfillment that doesn’t make you very happy, and definitely leaves you hungry for more. For the most part, this is a good thing — how many times do you leave a theater wishing the play had been longer? — and in overcoming the tired reputation of this American classic, the Intiman Theatre production merits ebullient praise.
In an economical 70 minutes, we live through passion, hypocrisy, cruelty, and hope, and then dreary redemption. The oft-assigned and less-read novel’s great, even operatic, theatricality is renewed in the immediate, contemporary language of Naomi lizuka and the performances led by Zabryna Guevara as Hester Prynne, portraying a spirit unbroken by her embroidered badge of shame.
There are risks taken with high rewards — a violinist on stage works visually as well as musically, crafting aural landscapes that match the handsome, near minimal yet always evocative scenic design. The production, directed by Lear deBessonet, hits its mark again and again in startlingly alive scenes that have that sense, as in much great theater, that anything could happen. There are scenes, for example, of heartfelt confusion between Hester and her wild-child daughter Pearl, or in the terse and tense back-and-forth between the self-aggrandizing town fathers and the woman whose life they endeavor to control.
These exchanges are expertly distilled. Yet sometimes we might benefit from more ale and less brandy. The interactions are scripted with such filmic efficiency that they seem to call for cameras and close-ups so we can see every twitch and wrinkle in the actors’ repertoire. Scenes reduced to their essence show the characters’ passions, but leave us only on the verge of understanding them.
This longing for more speaks to the strengths of the production as well as to the resiliency of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. These are compelling characters, fighting to be present in the world however harsh or unsympathetic it may be. A critically heralded bestseller in its time, The Scarlet Letter (1850) is built around a strong woman, Hester Prynne, alone in the new world of Boston waiting for a husband she hasn’t heard from for years, who has had a child from an adulterous relationship with a man she refuses to identify. Her punishment, meted out by the combined civil and religious authority of Puritan New England, is to wear a scarlet letter — an 'A' for adulteress — on her breast for the rest of her life.
While deeply and daily pained by the punishment — which the town’s sturdy matrons attack as insufficient, given that adultery is a sin punishable by death — Hester holds her head high, steadfastly protects her lover’s identity, and while an outcast, survives on her extraordinary skills as a seamstress, of such great artistry that even the governor hires her, whatever his judgment.
Her daughter, dressed by her mother in scarlet, grows to be an intensely free-spirited child, perfectly able to hold her own against the nasty-mouthed puritan urchins who torment her. Balancing Hester, who is tall and never yielding despite her badge of shame, are two weak, shrinking men — one handsome though ailing, the other as hunched as Shakespeare’s Richard III and uglier each day.
They both have a secret connection to her: The first, the father of her child, is the very reverend Dimmesdale, who shines only in the pulpit; the second is her cuckolded husband, Chillingworth, a rational man of science who is consumed by an irrational, slow-burning passion for revenge. Hester holds both of their secrets in her hands for seven years, and survives, joyless except for her impish daughter Pearl. The reverend, the connection still secret, helps her once, defending her right to raise her own child against the governor’s recommendation that the girl be taken from Hester. Years later, Hester defends Dimmesdale’s right to life and happiness against his own governing guilt, and, for a few days, comes close to executing her plan for a new, happy life for her, Dimmesdale, and Pearl.
In the end, happiness loses and New England wins, in the novel as in the play.
Dimmesdale has a kind of victory in being honest with the world: After a stirring sermon, at the peak of the love and respect of the Puritan community, he summons the courage to throw it all away and reveal his relationship to Hester and Pearl. The scene is memorably acted by Frank Boyd, vivid enough to help us, at last, to understand what Hester saw in him in the first place. R. Hamilton Wright, recently performing as the blowhard, fraud-marketing real estate salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Seattle Rep, plays Chillingworth with an energetic athleticism that is confusing at times — he’s the one person on stage who has the same life force as Hester. But then vengeance, as the performance demonstrates and Hawthorne writes, can be highly energizing.
Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter immediately after losing his three-year tenure as a political appointee heading the Salem Custom House, and while he was glad to leave his position, one he found stultifying as a man who wrote he “felt it to be the best definition of happiness to live throughout the full range of his faculties and sensibilities,” he took pleasure in publishing a devastating parody of his one-time peers in the introduction.
Defining himself as a writer of a romance in this text, he felt entitled to that “full range” of “faculties and sensibilities,” and made no excuses for craving happiness. This is the man who lived in the utopian experiment of Boston intellectuals at the Brook Farm, enjoyed the company of Emerson and Thoreau, and while always hesitant to take up a cause and always ready to probe it for hypocrisy, was an active player and observer in a world where new ways of thinking, new relationships, and new gender roles were all in play.
The novel’s protagonists are all smoldering volcanoes of talent and passion: Hester, with unlimited artistic talents channeled into womanly art; Dimmesdale, an uncannily erudite and charismatic sermonizer; Chillingworth, a profoundly expert and open-minded, if corrupt, physician; and the supernatural Pearl. They all, in a sense, are unfulfilled creative souls, whether society or their own weakness has stunted them. They all, like their author, are full of life force, fighting to get out of their own provincial house of customs and morals.
At the Intiman, lisuka’s framing device is an adult Pearl, not the autobiographical author, yet her subject, too, is happiness. lisuka’s Pearl presents herself as a woman trying to better understand her mother’s choices, eager to speak to Hester across time. The interaction is artfully staged, in language less about artistic fulfillment than personal understanding, yet every bit as focused on human fulfillment and resolution. Played by Renata Friedman, who was hilarious as Lucinde in the Intiman’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself and is affecting here, Pearl speaks in our current American vernacular of therapy.
It is a fascinating take on the end of Hawthorne’s novel, in which Pearl is rumored to be well married in Europe, while Hester comes home, puts the letter on again, and becomes a kind of therapist for the women of the young city, who come to her for advice on affairs of the heart. lusika has given her a chance to counsel, or at least explain, her decisions to her own daughter. In Hawthorne’s novel, this is attached to a more global ambition, as Hester shares with her advisees that “at some brighter period…a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”
Hawthorne wasn’t convinced that America had found surer ground two centuries after the Puritan regime, and lisuka isn’t here to reassure us, almost two centuries after Hawthorne. The play is remarkable for being of our time without needing to be explicit in reminding us that we live in a world where adultery is still punishable by death, where keeping secrets is generally better rewarded than speaking them, and where there are men and women still trapped in all kinds of doll houses, whether by society or their own devices. And where, on frustrating days, it seems as though hypocrisy is the coin of the realm, freshly minted daily.
But speaking of happiness, the play’s the thing, and the very writing and performing of it reminds us that we live in a world where there are men and women who meet Hawthorne’s definition of happiness: “to live throughout the full range” of their “faculties and sensibilities."
If you go: 'The Scarlet Letter,' through Dec. 5, Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St., Seattle, 206.269.1900. Tickets cost $25 to $65 and are available by phone or online.