The Scarlet Letter

Sarah Saltwick's new adaptation sticks close to Hawthorne's novel – maybe too close

(l-r) Cara Spradling as Pearl, Sarah Konkel as Hester, and Mackenzie Dunn as Mistress Hibbins
(l-r) Cara Spradling as Pearl, Sarah Konkel as Hester, and Mackenzie Dunn as Mistress Hibbins (Courtesy of Lawrence Peart)

The Scarlet Letter

B. Iden Payne Theatre, 200 E. 23rd, 471-5793
Through Dec. 7
Running time: 2 hr.

If ever a story was ripe for fresh interpretation during the year of the "War on Women," Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is it. A tale of puritanical judgment and condemnation of a woman for displaying sexual agency, staged a few months after Sandra Fluke and Todd Akin dominated our political discourse? The potential is overwhelming.

Following Hawthorne's novel, playwright Sarah Saltwick's script tells the story of Hester Prynne, a young woman who leaves 17th century England for Boston, ahead of her husband. When he never arrives, she lives on her own and, eventually, has an affair that results in both her clothing being branded with a scarlet "A" for "adulterer," and the birth of a daughter, Pearl. Years later, a newcomer to the city, the doctor Roger Chillingworth, ingratiates himself with the people of the city, including the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, and takes an interest in Hester and Pearl. When he reveals to Hester his identity as her husband, having survived for years as a prisoner, he seeks to discover the identity of Pearl's father.

Watching director Steven Wilson's take on those events, though, one senses competing forces at work in this production. A program note suggests that he and Saltwick felt unbound by Hawthorne's novel, but aside from the incorporation of a handful of anachronistic elements – Hester and Pearl are fond of singing Tori Amos' "Winter" as a lullaby, while the people of the church prefer her "Crucify" – the play struggles to tell its story effectively and undistracted by the lingering elements of the original text. The subplot involving the execution of Ann Hibbins for witchcraft is present here, but its treatment as an afterthought indicates that it's not something the creative team found particularly compelling. As in the book, the secrets between Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth are treated as the main narrative thrust of the play, but the production's real interest appears to be the relationship between Sarah Konkel's Hester and fifth grader Cara Spradling's Pearl.

There is chemistry between those two, and there are moments of beauty in the script between them. Saltwick's facility with dialogue allows for a vivid and rich interpretation of both – her most prominent talent has always been her ability to subtly breathe life into her female characters without overwriting their lines – and it's hard to shake the feeling that the story she and Wilson wanted to tell is about Hester and Pearl (and maybe Tori Amos), rather than Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.

That's not the story we get from their Scarlet Letter, though, and it's hard not to feel disappointed by that disconnect. A production that never realizes its potential is sometimes more frustrating to watch than one that doesn't possess it to begin with.

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The Scarlet Letter, Austin theatre, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Sarah Saltwick, Steven Wilson

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