Arts Listings

‘Wakefield, or Hello Sophia’ at Central Works

By Ken Bullock, Special to The Planet
Tuesday February 26, 2008

Dying embers of a fire on a blustery night; a pensive woman, alone in a room ... when the door opens and a rainsoaked man steps in, greets her by name, and just stands there while she gawks. It’s her husband, who left on a two-day business trip 20 years before. 

Central Works is staging Brian Thorstenson’s adaptation of Hawthorne’s tale, Wakefield, updating it to the present, set in San Francisco, not London.  

And it’s a perfect fit for this unique company and the house it’s resident in, the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club—an intimate chamber play for two fine actors, Julian Lopez-Morillas and Central Works co-founder Jan Zvaifler, as they worry over their separate memories of a long, unexpected hiatus, with the missing man remaining nearby, vigilant, his eye on his abandoned house and wife, watching the life he left—from outside. 

Wakefield, or Hello Sophia takes Hawthorne’s brief chronicle—a mere 13 paragraphs—and begins where Hawthorne leaves off: “We will not follow our friend across the threshold. He has left us much food for thought ...” 

Much food for thought, indeed. From the lights coming up, following the blackout after Lopez-Morillas enters and speaks his off-the-cuff greeting, the script uses virtually every little detail in Hawthorne’s narrated account, reassembling (and assessing) Wakefield’s strange hiatus within the neighborhood from both perspectives, the deserter and the abandoned. 

But each question, each accusation, every answer and excuse opens up a deeper ambiguity. Wakefield can describe the shifting patterns of feeling, his vague thoughts, but no real motivations or plans—a joke? A test? Joke on, test for whom?  

Thorstenson’s lines of dialogue, so much exposition (like all of Hawthorne’s original), are jagged with interruption, fitting together like pieces of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, evoking a little bit the irony of stichomythia, the broken, back-and-forth dialogue of Greek tragedy, where the message lurks in what’s not said, in the echo of the banal.  

To provide a little contrast—and humor—there are quick blackout inserts, soap opera scenes that burlesque the moral standoff between husband and wife, exaggerating the most obvious emotions the audience might project the characters as feeling, flaring up into melodrama or dissipating into silliness, both taking the edge off and underlining the tension of a most improbable confrontation and awkward conversation which follows. “Picking up the pieces”? “Comparing notes”? Somehow, in Wakefield’s mind, he was both present and absent, a great change taking place as soon as he saw everything from the outside. And he doesn’t want to go back to his solitude: “Out there, it’s changed.” 

Central Works has a long history of producing plays at the City Club, and of using the space and atmosphere of that lovely room creatively. With Wakefield, co-founder Gary Graves directs a show that’s spare and taut even by his company’s usual standards. The simplicity of set (not credited), costume (Tammy Berlin), light (the director) and sound (Greg Scharpen) design belies the complex and suggestive way the different elements all work together.  

The same is true of the acting. The mood would seem to be a blanket one, but through subtle contrasts and variations—and by working together with sensitive timing—the two performers together open up a world of memories, questions and choices from what seems at first mutual “shock and confusion” over a reappearance more surprising than the original disappearance. Lopez-Morillas is resilient and resourceful; Zvaifler’s performance recalls and distills her very finest of the past. 

Wakefield has been adapted before, but mostly for film. It was used to great comic effect in Three Lives and Only One Death, one of Marcello Mastriani’s last films, written and directed by Raul Ruiz. Thorstenson, the director and the performers are adroit in mostly avoiding too much psychology, too much melodrama—too much explanation. Hawthorne presents his tale as the upbeat moral monologue of a narrator recalling an offbeat incident of melancholy. As Walter Benjamin noted in his essay, “The Storyteller,” the essence of a tale is an absence of explanation. The audience is left with much to ponder.  

“Thought has always its efficacy, and every striking incident its moral,” says Hawthorne, only sketching in the minimum of incident or moral for us. Central Works, too, has left us much food for thought, and the imagination. 



Presented by Central Works at 8 p.m.  

Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sundays through March 23 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. $14-25. 558-1381.