Brush Up On Your Hawthorne 

What a curious creature is Central Works' Wakefield

There are two kinds of people who come to see Central Works' premiere of Brian Thorstenson's one-act Wakefield; or Hello Sophia — those who've read the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story that inspired it, and those who haven't. As with so many us-and-them divisions, it's hard to imagine the perspective of the one if you happen to be the other.

Most people who see it will be unfamiliar with the source material, which is a shame. Thorstenson's Wakefield isn't a literary adaptation per se. He simply takes the ball where Hawthorne left it 157 years ago and runs with it. One of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, "Wakefield" is less a story than a scenario, in which the author professes to have run across the story of a man called Wakefield who told his wife he was off for a short business trip, walked out and stayed out for twenty years. He rented an apartment a block away, and peered in the window at his wife every day to see how she was getting on without him. After two decades, one day he walked in the front door as naturally as he left, and the couple lived together for the rest of their days.

This much Hawthorne lays out in the very first paragraph. The rest is speculation about what sort of man would do such a thing. Positing a tendency to keep trivial secrets and a stubborn inertia that stretches a week's prank over 20 years, Hawthorne lays out a credible portrait of how such a thing might be possible without really addressing the why of the matter. The upshot is simply: What a curious creature is Wakefield!

In effect, Hawthorne presents a puzzle and is content to puzzle over it. What more can be done? That's what Thorstenson seems to set out to discover. He opens his play with Wakefield walking in and saying, "Hello, Sophia."

First, however, the play opens with Sophia, played by Jan Zvaifler, standing alone in the center of the room drinking from a teacup. Then there's a blackout, lights up on an empty room, and Julian López-Morillas walks in as husband Henry, his shoes squeaking, soaked from the rain. (In this version, we are on a first-name basis with the characters.) Then Sophia reenters with a small shriek at the figure in his living room, and stares dumbstruck as Henry mildly greets her.

Those two little words are repeated again and again, in fantasy sequences of the many other ways the homecoming might have gone, with tears, laughter, gunshots, or passionate embraces, each with appropriate musical accompaniment in Gregory Scharpen's sound design. The "reality" of the play is far more awkward.

Created like all of Central Works' plays, in collaboration with the director, cast, and crew, Thorstenson's version initially seems to be concerned with "solving" Wakefield. Certainly, the why of what he did is all Sophia ultimately wants to talk about. Some blanks are filled in, such as what he did for money all that time, but otherwise the few details of his absence are more or less as Hawthorne sketched out.

Wakefield doesn't have any answers, and it's to López-Morillas' credit that he makes credible how thoroughly Henry has misplaced himself inside himself. Tentative and childish in his subtly tattered clothes (by Tammy Berlin), his lips are constantly in motion, trying and failing to find the words that will make it all okay.

The real question is, what could possibly motivate his wife, after many years of presumptive widowhood, to take him back? For that matter, will she? This version is set in present-day San Francisco, and it's hard to imagine any woman putting up with this sort of crap today.

Maybe that's why Zvaifler's Sophia is so cold. We get her bewilderment, her weariness, and most of all her righteous indignation. What we don't see, except in absurd fantasy, is a glimpse of the woman who loved him. She might be all Henry can see, but his Sophia is a long time buried, just as she had thought him to be.

For a play set in one time and place without requiring a set, Gary Graves' staging is surprisingly busy. There are many blackouts, the ones to fantastic interludes heavy-handedly accompanied by a loud sound and sharp shift of lighting. These asides inject some much-needed humor, but otherwise feel like padding. There are also blackouts to mark the passing of time, even though this is a single conversation, as if there isn't enough substance to fill even the play's seventy minutes.

If you didn't know the basic premise, it emerges slowly, awkwardly, between Henry's attempted small talk and Sophia's incredulity. If you know your Hawthorne, what's most surprising about this Wakefield is how little its exploration clarifies the original's perplexity. Ultimately there's little to do but sigh, "What a curious creature is Wakefield!"


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