SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake Acting Company’s Charm transported me into the world of America’s most famous transcendentalists—Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—but I found a world quite different from what I had expected. I’ve been a huge fan of the transcendentalists since I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but not many other members of my 11th grade English class shared my enthusiasm for long-winded allegories and brooding social commentaries. And I’ve found myself in a bit of a minority ever since. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Massachusetts of the 1840s through the eyes of the vivacious and anything-but-gloomy Margaret Fuller.Margaret Fuller was one of America’s firsts: she was among the first feminists, the first editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, and the New York Tribune’s first foreign correspondent. In this, the world premiere of Kathleen Cahill’s script, Cheryl Gaysunas played a Margaret Fuller who was quirky, smart, and bursting with energy.
I can’t praise the actors in Charm enough for the lively performances they gave these figures I’d always pictured as two dimensional, stark, unsmiling black-and-whites. Each of them was lovable and personable. Brik Berkes played the cripplingly shy Nathaniel Hawthorne (who, in reality, was so sociopathic that he’d occasionally hide behind trees so as not to have to talk to acquaintances on the road) in such a way that gave him a What About Bob?-style of humorous lovability.
I was delighted to see Thoreau, played by Robert Scott Smith, as a cheerful nature lover – pulling bugs from his pockets and dreaming of moving to the woods. I think I will always picture the grinning tree-hugger when I read Walden, thrilling with Margaret Fuller about the freedom of swimming in Walden Pond and discovering new kinds of bugs.
Cahill’s script explored the character of Ralph Waldo Emerson, played by Nicholas Wuehrmann, in a way I hadn’t previously imagined. Of all the male authors depicted, Emerson’s character was the most believable. Emerson was living in a hollow marriage with his crone of a second wife, Lydian (played by the very funny Jayne Luke)—whose birth name was Lydia, but Emerson personally changed to Lydian upon marrying her—when he met Margaret Fuller. She gave him a new perspective of what kind of joy and friendship were possible in a relationship between a man and a woman.
The free spirited Margaret Fuller forced everyone she met to admit to their inner desires and to examine social restrictions. Ahead of her time, Margaret refused to be bound by the social, political, or religious expectations of the 19th century. Disregarding the consequences, she openly explored sexuality and gender roles and refused to accept any norm that she found repressive. The genius of the script (and, indeed, of Fuller herself) was that, even though her sorrow for being an outcast was apparent, Fuller remained undaunted. She never ceased to revel in the beauty of nature and the human spirit.
Margaret’s relationship with each of the men in the play (besides prudent Orestes Brownson, played by Max Robinson) dealt in some way with sexual expression. It is up to the viewer to decide whether sexual intimacy is used in the play to symbolize deep connections then unknown between men and women or whether sexuality is itself being explored. Either way, the play’s omnipresent sexual theme requires a mature audience.
Director Meg Gibson did a great job. The entire play was in one act, and the actors and set (Keven Myhre) were moved on, off, and around the stage in a way that was seamless, comedic, and provided additional depth to the story. The stage was inclined and bordered by panels that provided a forced perspective, and characters and props were often thrust in from all parts of the stage. Plus, Carianne H. Jones (who also played a few parts) would occasionally display title cards (silent-film-style) from behind the panels. Finally, the costumes were brilliant (Brenda Van Der Wiel), and I was amazed by the way they interacted with the set and were used as symbols for several of the play’s themes.
Charm was both enjoyable and thought-provoking. Through my laughter, I felt closer to many of the authors I already loved, and I felt a new appreciation for the freedoms I have as a woman. I am so grateful that women like Margaret Fuller endured persecution and raised eyebrows so that women today can have the liberties we enjoy. Speaking of her experience writing the script for Charm, Kathleen Cahill said she felt like “somebody [was] guiding it so that Margaret can have her due and for people to know about her.” Margaret Fuller, I’m happy to know you, and my hat goes off to you.