While a small band of people was protesting on Main Street Thursday night in Sag Harbor with signs proclaiming “Dump Trump,” a troupe of actors at Bay Street Theater was getting ready to unleash spit and fury at a woman in Puritan America who had a child outside of marriage.
Bullying at its worst was unleashed by the good townspeople of 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony at the luckless lady. Instead of a torrent of ugly Facebook comments and tweets, she was subjected to shrieking self-righteous folks declaiming her sin and demanding that she name the child’s father, so he too might be derided.
The brave Hester Prynne maintained her silence and refused to back down to the mob. She bore her shame alone, with a red letter “A” for “Adultery” emblazoned on the front of her dress.
The story is familiar to most adult audiences who read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” in high school, even as we stumbled over the language of the 1850s, when it was first published. Through the Literature Live! program at Bay Street Theater, this dramatic version of the American classic is being brought free to student groups from Nassau and Suffolk counties through November 26.
And it’s a lively show they have in store!
A thwarted love affair, a mad woman who speaks truth among her gibberish, a weak man who dies seemingly because of hiding his sin, a spiteful husband who had been unreasonably absent, and the screaming townspeople-turned-bullies is staged with panache and acted with brio.
For those unfamiliar with the story here it is in brief: Hester is shamed but manages to live quietly with her daughter and eke out a living as a seamstress; the father of her child remains unforthcoming until nearly the end but fatally suffers for his silence; the once-presumed-dead husband of Hester returns as a healer but he is the villain, and eventually all is revealed. Stripped down to the barest theme, Hester and the father of her child are Eve and Adam, who must eventually leave the society that condemns them.
Chloë Dirksen is exceptional as Hester—she’s strong, she’s resilient, she’s the woman we’d all want to be if subjected to such a public shaming. Ms. Dirksen has an expressive face that radiates depth and complexity, qualities she also called on in the role of the grownup Scout in the Literature Live! production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” two seasons ago. Here those assets of the Sag Harbor resident are full frontal, enhancing her sterling performance as the wronged woman we want to cheer for.
Another standout in the cast is Kathleen Mary Carthy as Mistress Hibbens, the town’s witch and sister of the governor. She serves as a kind of Greek chorus in this morality play, for within her crazy talk are buried many of the modern-day ethical themes of the work. Michael Raver does the tortured Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale with fierce passion.
Singling out these three in no way detracts from the others in the cast for everyone on stage and everything mesh together to put on a lively but thoughtful show. How do we treat each other? Is her sin greater than our own?
The script is an original adaptation by Scott Eck and director Joe Minutillo, and it has plenty of flashes of inventive staging and lighting. The writing leaves no line unturned to milk the story for the verities buried within: “A mother’s love is a sacred bond.” “Love always forgives.” “Lies and deceits are what we practice on a daily basis.” “The truth indeed is a frightful place.”
But after a while the bullying and some of the oratory from the witch continues at such a feverish pitch that it cloys on the mind, and you want the one-act play to giddyap to its inevitable and tragic climax.
The gray, moody set by Gary Hygom is simple but effective. An intricate tapestry of twigs as the background evokes the harsh landscape of Massachusetts, still famous in the town of Salem for its witchcraft trials of the late 1600s. Hawthorne himself was the customhouse surveyor in Salem and a descendant of one of the judges of the witch trials, John Hathorne. (The “w” in Hawthorne’s name? He added it when he began to write.)
Students from some 120 classes in 30 middle and high schools on Long Island will be attending the performances of “The Scarlet Letter.” Q-and-A sessions will follow most performances. Given that bullying on social media is a hot-button issue among teenagers, the choice of this work is especially relevant.
Others in the cast: Pearl, the child, Dakota Quackenbush; townspeople, Jessica Mortellaro, Carolann Di Pirro; Blacksmith Forrester, Luke David Young; Beadle Jameson, Preston Truman Boyd; Roger Chillingworth, Nick Gregory; Gov. Bellingham, Daren Kelly; Rev. Wilson, Luke David Young. Kate D’Arcy designed the costumes; lighting by Mike Billings.
“The Scarlet Letter” continues with public performances through November 26 on Fridays and Saturdays 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Additional performance will be held Thursday, November 17, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, November 26, at 2 p.m. For tickets, ranging from $20 to $55, call 631-725-9500 or visit at baystreet.org.
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One fine body…