Classical Application: Plan-B and The Scarlet Letter

Posted April 13, 2012 in
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Claire Wilson and Lauren Noll in The Scarlet Letter. Photo: Rick Pollock
Plan-B Theatre Company’s 2011/12 season is coming to an end, and The Scarlet Letter marks the last play in this season of all female playwrights, as well as Plan-B Theatre’s 63rd world premiere play.

Jenifer Nii, a local writer who co-wrote Wallace with Debora Threedy and who has written three SLAM pieces for Plan-B, adapted Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel for the stage after being approached with the idea by Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s Producing Director. “I tried to stay as faithful as I could to, if not the actual text, at least what I felt was the heart of the story,” says Nii. This adaptation breaks down the story, focusing on the four main characters (Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, Pearl and, of course, Hester Prynne) and the key events and issues from Hawthorne’s book. “I had to find a way to give the sense of a community embodied by a very few people, and how to convey that sort of group shaming, that group judgment … without the group,” Nii says.

Claire Wilson, a sophomore at the Salt Lake School of Performing Arts in her professional theatre debut, brings the mischievous character of Pearl to life. While writing this adaptation, Nii realized how vital Pearl was to the story. “What I really wanted to preserve was the dual, ethereal, otherworldly aspect that Pearl brings in. In my mind I saw it as Nathaniel Hawthorne saying, ‘Gosh, you know, what if we could really say this? What if we could really think this?’ He made that voice a little girl, and I thought what a wonderful choice that is,” says Nii. The other three members of the cast have all previously appeared in various Plan-B productions. Lauren Noll, who plays Hester, was Ophelia in Lady Macbeth and was in A Doll House during Plan-B’s Script-In-Hand Series. David Fetzer, playing Dimmesdale, appeared in The End of the Horizon, The Third Crossing and in last year’s Script-In-Hand Series, he’s also in the band Mushman with Patrick Fugit. Playing Chillingworth is Mark Fossen, who was in Alienation Effekt, Exposed, Amerigo and many, many other Plan B productions and readings. Having such a strong cast is crucial in plays like The Scarlet Letter, where the emotions of the characters are just as important as their words.

The relationship portrayed between Dimmesdale and Hester conjures up many mixed emotions, as does that between Hester and Pearl, but the relationship between Chillingworth and Hester could be the hardest to decipher. Understanding a character’s motivation is simple, but grasping the meaning of their interaction with others is far more important to a story, and it’s something Nii portrays very well in this adaptation.

The play also translates well to many of the current social and political issues relevant today. Cheryl Ann Cluff, the director of The Scarlet Letter and Plan-B’s Managing Director, says, “A lot of people think that The Scarlet Letter is about adultery and sin, but my take on it is that it’s about hypocrisy and how [hypocrisy] is a much, much worse sin than adultery, and how much damage that can do flipped upon a person.” Looking at the latest attacks on Planned Parenthood Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut or any of the recent abortion bills that essentially just shame women, you can see the very real damage this kind of hypocrisy does to our society. “From contraception to abortion, in little towns and in world stages, it seems that it is pervasive, but then every now and again it’ll just crest, and we’re in one of those times right now,” says Nii.

Regardless of where you sit on any of those political issues, the simplicity of the messages wrapped up inside The Scarlet Letter are easily applied. Nii says, “I hope that women and men will sense the love that I have for each of these characters. I attempted as best I could to give voice to their humanity, and I think that that is at the heart … to recognize that we are equally human.”

The Scarlet Letter runs April 12-22, Th-F at 8 p.m., Sat. 4 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner. Tickets are $20, or $10 for students.
Claire Wilson and Lauren Noll in The Scarlet Letter. Photo: Rick Pollock David Fetzer and Lauren Noll in The Scarlet Letter. Photo: Rick Pollock Mark Fossen and Lauren Noll in The Scarlet Letter. Photo: Rick Pollock