A hint of feminism slips into 'Scarlet Letter'

November 23, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The good news is, it's better than the movie. The not-so-good news is, it's still not a rousing dramatic event.

"The Scarlet Letter," that is. Fell's Point Corner Theatre has conveniently mounted a stage adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale of the early settlers just in time for

Thanksgiving.

But while we can be thankful we're spared such cinematic moments as seeing Hester Prynne's husband running around the woods wearing a dead deer on his head, what we get instead tends to feel like a school pageant.

Adapted by playwright Phyllis Nagy, this "Scarlet Letter" sticks closer to the book than the big-budget-but-short-lived Demi Moore-Robert Duvall version did. But many of Nagy's efforts to make it stage-worthy come off stilted.

The play is narrated by Hester's grown illegitimate daughter, Pearl, whose red -- what else could it be? -- dress is the only bright color on stage, except, of course, for that famous letter worn by her adulterous mom.

Marianne Angelella does a moving job as Pearl. When called on to portray her as an infant, Angelella scrunches up and changes her body language with surprising verisimilitude. She's equally effective as a willful youngster -- so uncontrollable, she'd be labeled "hyperactive" today.

The narration device isn't the play's only theatrical touch. There's a three-woman chorus of staunch Puritans (Kathy Turyn Romaine, Debbie Bennett and Laura Stafford) who frequently speak in unison -- the show's most pageant-like effect.

And despite its relative faithfulness, Nagy's script also has a modern sensibility. The four main characters -- Hester; Pearl; her father, the hypocritical Reverend Dimmesdale; and Hester's -Z estranged husband, revenge-obsessed Dr. Chillingworth -- make up the quintessential Puritan dysfunctional family. Pearl isn't just the daughter of Hester and Dimmesdale, she's their repressed inner child come to life.

Under Barry Feinstein's direction, Mary Anne Perry Karkaria's Hester is noble, even if she is too passionate for her fellow Puritans. Roger Buchanan is an intense Chillingworth.

But Tim Munn's Dimmesdale is, indeed, a diminished man; he starts out weak-spirited and fades from there. What Hester saw in him is difficult to fathom.

Though some modern locutions slip in, there's an effort to keep most of the language appropriately archaic sounding, and the cast handles that pretty well. There's also a decided feminist slant to the proceedings. The central women characters are much bigger hearted than the men.

So what does this play about sin in the age of the Puritans tell us about today's swing back to repression and censorship?

That depends on what you think of Pearl, the product of that sin. Frankly, she was my favorite character; too bad she was stuck in such a stodgy play.

'The Scarlet Letter'

Where: Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 17

Tickets: $10 and $11

$ Call: (410) 276-7837

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