Afraid of the Dark: Hester Prynne’s tale of suspicion still resonates today

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Chloe Dirksen as Hester Prynne and Michael Raver as Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. (Bay Street Theater photo).
Chloe Dirksen as Hester Prynne and Michael Raver as Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. (Bay Street Theater photo).
Chloe Dirksen as Hester Prynne and Michael Raver as Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. (Bay Street Theater photo).

By Annette Hinkle

At Bay Street Theater next week, a new play will be opening and audience members might be taken aback when they hear the characters debate the notion of building a wall to keep out the “dark people” whom they fear.

While it sounds like a contemporary take on the current state of world affairs (or the presidential election) this play is anything but. It is, in fact, “The Scarlet Letter,” Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about 17th century Massachusetts and a cloistered culture dominated by suspicions, paranoia, prejudice, and extreme judgment against those who dare to defy societal expectations.

And those people contemplating the wall? Puritans, of course, who are terrified of what lurks in the woods beyond their settlement.

“They have this constant discussion of the ‘dark man,’” explains the play’s director, Joe Minutillo. “The dark man is open for interpretation. The dark man is a spiritual, mystical thing — people are afraid of the ‘other’ and things they don’t understand.”

“The Scarlet Letter” is this year’s installment of Literature Live! Bay Street’s annual educational initiative which takes classic books out of the classroom and brings them to life on stage. This is the eighth Literature Live! production at Bay Street, and the this script is an adaptation of the novel by Mr. Minutillo and writer Scott Eck (who played Atticus Finch in the theater’s 2014 production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”)

In case you’ve forgotten the details of “The Scarlet Letter,” the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne, a married woman who lives in a Puritan village in the 1600s with her daughter, Pearl, a child conceived through an adulterous affair during her husband’s long absence from the village.

As a result of her indiscretion, Hester is publicly humiliated and forced to wear a red letter “A” for “adultery” on her clothing. Still, she refuses to name Pearl’s father and is shunned. When Hester’s missing husband secretly returns to the village, he poses as a doctor named Roger Chillingworth and is bent on revenge against his wife and her unnamed lover, whoever he may be.

Though Mr. Minutillo and the rest of the Literature Live! team at Bay Street selected “The Scarlet Letter” a year ago for the 2016 production, given what’s transpired on the political stage in recent months, it seems an amazingly prescient selection.

Not only does the play raise issues of fear-mongering among the masses in order to gain control and power, but it also delves into the treatment of women. Specifically, it examines how women who don’t conform to societal expectations in a male-dominated society bear the wrath, not only of the men in charge, but other women who view her non-conformity as a threat to their own social pecking order.

In other words, if this were an ‘80s John Hughes movie, we’d call it the “mean girls’ table” and the focus of there ire, of course, would be Hester Prynne.

Hester’s played in this production by Sag Harbor’s Chloe Dirksen who admits that she’s been struck by just how relevant this material has been given the context of the current political and social climate.

“So many things in the play are relevant now — and the treatment of women is a huge part of it,” explains Ms. Dirksen. “It’s about women finding their voice, the way men see such women, and the way women see each other based on how the men see them.”

In Hester Prynne, Ms. Dirksen has discovered a character who is ahead of her time precisely because she doesn’t feel the need to define herself by the current mores. She’s a strong, confident single mother raising her daughter without any visible help from a man, supporting herself through her talent in needlework.

Her choices, confidence and wholly unconventional lifestyle make her a target and the townspeople view Hester as a pariah.

“The interesting thing about this adaptation, the goodwives are the mean girls and are the most hateful,” says Ms. Dirksen. “They’re tying to get the town to have Hester’s child taken away from her and keep her down.”

“To me it’s very interesting, very timely and relevant,” she adds. “It often is women who have been so subjugated by their culture they are the most adamant other woman should be taken down.”

Ultimately, though, it’s Hester’s belief in herself and all she values that keeps her focused and able to withstand the slings and arrows of those who seek to ruin her.

“What she’s doing is discovering her own truth that love is the most important thing,” says Ms. Dirksen. “Her love for her daughter and this unnamed man that she cannot have a relationship with in public. But in her heart, in the way she lives her life, she’s living every day loving and defending him.”

“There are certain people who will raise the status of others, Hester is one of them,” adds Mr. Minutillo. “She’s always giving. If you raise someone’s status, you’re giving them something. When people work together to raise each other’s status, great things happen.”

This is the fourth Literature Live! production that Mr. Minutillo has directed. He brings not only his skill as a theater professional to the project, but knowledge of the classroom as well. A former English teacher, he once taught the classics himself and for that reason, understands what kids need to see on stage in order to connect with the material.

“We ask, what’s the best way we can write this, not just as a play but as a teaching tool?” he notes. “It’s important for the audience to be left with something to think about that they can relate to their own lives.”

Mr. Minutillo worries that kids don’t read books like they used to and he finds the classics are not taught in schools as much as they once were. Fortunately, he’s also found that Literature Live! can inspire students to pick up the book after the fact.

“We hear from teachers every year,” says Ms. Dirksen. “They’ll write and call the theater and say my kids are so inspired. That’s what theater will hopefully do, make people want to read more, explore it and let it find a way into our hearts.”

“This is a great way to teach a kid. I think it will affect the kids the way we need to,” notes Mr. Minutillo. “The universality of this compared with today’s world. We need to be aware of what we do in our every day lives in terms of hate and judgment of others. And we need to be willing to be open to others — whether they’re black, Puerto Rican, pink, orange, gay — we’re all in this human family and we have to work together to get rid of that anger, hate and judgment.”

“And not build a wall….”

Public performances of “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne are Thursday through Saturday, November 10 to 12, 17 to 19 and Thanksgiving weekend November 25 to 26 at 7 p.m. Matinee performances will be on Saturdays, November 12, 19, and 26 at 2 p.m. Beginning Tuesday, November 7, school day performances will be offered for local students. Bay Street Theater is on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Tickets are available online at www.baystreet.org, or by calling the box office at (631) 725-9500

The cast stars Preston Truman Boyd, Kathleen Mary Carthy, Chloe Dirksen, Carolann DiPirro, Luke David Young, Nick Gregory, Daren Kelly, Jessica Mortellaro, Dakota Quakenbush and Michael Raver.

 

Students attend Literature Live! performances for free, and currently, a group of donors has agreed to match all donations dollar for dollar, up to $50,000, to support the program. To donate, visit www.baystreet.org/support/donate.

 

 

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