House of the Damned
While some critics would say Nathaniel Hawthorne's dark tales are not of this world, The House of the Seven Gables reveals a work very much of two worlds, or rather two Americas -- the new and the old. Woven from the black cloak of Calvinism but enlightened by the threads of Emerson and Thoreau, who explored concepts such as free will and individual accountability, The House of the Seven Gables dramatizes one of the most potent moments in U.S. history. As the play notes indicate, this was an era when the United States was coming into its own, emerging from the shadows of Puritanism, redesigning itself, and looking for meaning in the growing contradiction between human potential and fatalism. It is in the historical context of the play that we can see some of the most extreme vices and virtues of this nation. As the characters evolve, the house, which represents these values, is destroyed and rebuilt.
The House of the Seven Gables makes its world premiere at New Theatre, which might lead one to wonder, Why dramatize this highly literary and lumbering novel of plots and subplots anyway? One answer is that it's an admirable and important work, and New Theatre has made it a priority to commission work from local playwrights. This script was adapted by former New World School of the Arts associate dean Richard Janaro, whose plays have been performed before by New Theatre. This is the second piece written by a South Florida playwright to be put on this season by Rafael de Acha's theater. (The first was The Book of Ruth by Mario Diament.)
The plot is dense. Holgrave (played by Israel Garcia), a wandering and solitary man, takes a room in the house of seven gables, where Hepzibah Pyncheon (Lisa Morgan) has lived alone for 17 years since her brother, Clifford (Jonathan Cantor), was taken away to an insane asylum for murdering his uncle. Besides the general estrangement and rancor typical in any American family, something is awry. It is said that a shadow lurks in the second-floor windows of the house -- the shadow of a woman that reflects not the matronly profile of Hepzibah but that of a young maiden, a shadow whose voice resounds with a cry of delight, a tortured howl, or simply the wind in the trees. In other words the place is haunted. From the beginning Holgrave is inexplicably drawn to the house, and as it turns out, he feels a deep connection to Matthew Maule (also played by Garcia), a man who was burned at the stake during the Salem witch-hunts and whose last words placed a curse on the Pyncheon family. (It was a Pyncheon who sentenced Maule.) The curse declares that everyone who lives in the house of the seven gables is damned and the first born of every generation will die a surprising and tragic death. Heavy stuff.
The characters set up the obvious dichotomy between free will and destiny. Another visitor to the house, Phoebe (Ursula Freundlich), clearly is the young counterpoint to Hepzibah, a spinster who runs her unsuccessful candy store from the house, which doesn't receive much business because it's a haunted house. From despair to redemption, darkness to light, the playwright was smart to dramatize this conflict because this is what motivates the piece most. We wonder if Phoebe will be able to exorcise the evil with her innocence and goodwill. In a revealing scene, she tells Hepzibah there is no ghost; there is no curse. She stands as a representative of the New World and a voice of reason -- one who believes in an individual's inherent right to affect his own life. Hepzibah, on the other hand, represents fatalism. She says of the family curse: "That long-ago sin was so great even the innocent [are] not free."
Phoebe is the harbinger of light, but thanks to the subtle lighting of Travis Neff, there is no spotlight moment, no golden hue cast upon her face. Freundlich gives her character a sweetness that is believable because it is based on the wide-eyed enthusiasm of youth. She appears out of nowhere, promising to give the rooms a good dusting and get the family business up and running. Like Hepzibah, we are infected by her vivacity.
Israel Garcia as Holgrave has shaped a character that is mysterious and ubiquitous. His tone is slow, even, and deliberate. As someone who is not a victim of the family curse but who nonetheless is drawn to the house, his philosophy falls between that of Phoebe and Hepzibah. The romance between Phoebe and Holgrave is a high point in the play and leads to its redemptive ending. Their subtle exchanges and subdued passion are Scarlet Letter stuff, and Freundlich and Garcia play it out well.
Holgrave says early on in the play: "Each of us is a house. A house with many locked rooms." This seems to reflect the character of Hepzibah. A woman of the bankrupt aristocracy rattling around a haunted house, waiting for her death, she also is tough and resilient. She can be loving and hopeful despite herself. Hepzibah also most embodies the struggle between the curse of the past and the promise of the future. One of the most poignant moments of the play comes when Hepzibah is seized by an attack of courage and decides to go into town. She dons her best, talking quickly and excitedly like a schoolgirl about applying for a job, maybe even buying another house, when suddenly she sinks back into her chair and gives up. As she says, "He who is born a Pyncheon has no hope of redemption." Lisa Morgan, who recently showed her range and versatility as a giggling teenager, an erudite psychiatrist, and a seasoned reporter in New Theatre's production of Never the Sinner, again brings depth to her character.
The core acting of Garcia, Morgan, and Freundlich keeps the play engaging and moving, but there are moments when it is too static. Part of this can be attributed to the script, which at times is as literary and lumbering as the novel itself. But perhaps a more significant factor is the lack of dramatic intensity and range in the secondary characters of Uncle Venner, Judge Pyncheon, and Clifford. At the beginning Uncle Venner (played by Larry Jurrist) delivers several lines that are supposed to be funny but don't quite hit their mark. The humor is slow going, and it is only later in the play that he offers some comic relief, a welcome event in such a somber work.
The roles of Judge Pyncheon (Matthew Wright) and Clifford (Cantor) carry with them a considerable amount of unrealized dramatic potential. Clifford, newly released from the mental institution and obviously shell-shocked, shuffles around mumbling nonsensical things that are funny as one-liners; considering he has been done a great injustice and a good portion of his life has been spent paying for a crime he didn't commit, though, his character is underdeveloped. Likewise Judge Pyncheon, the true bad guy of the story, is duly greedy and nasty, but based on the family curse and his role in this history, he should come off much meaner.
It is in these slow moments that we long for a shift in intensity or a change in perspective, something to which director de Acha should have paid more attention. He did, however, avoid many pitfalls that such a complicated plot could have produced. All in all the adaptation is successful in word and spirit, and the bulk of the dramatic movement is, if not suspenseful, engaging. A minimalist set designed by Douglas Molash and the soprano of Kimberly Daniel transform the New Theatre's small stage into an eerie and dreamy space -- one well worth entering.
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