“The Scarlet Letter” Offers Lessons for Young and Old

A scene from "Scarlet Letter" at Bay Street.
A scene from "Scarlet Letter" at Bay Street.
A scene from “Scarlet Letter” at Bay Street. Lenny Stucker/LennyStucker.com

By Annette Hinkle

In the 1640s, the dark woods of Massachusetts were a frightening place to be —especially if you were a Puritan. For these God-fearing people, the forest was where evil and unholy creatures lurked, and Satan did his deeds.

But perhaps more frightening, at least for those who didn’t strictly adhere to the religious laws of the day, was life inside a Puritanical settlement where suspicions, accusations and judgment reigned supreme.

That’s the set up for “The Scarlet Letter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about persecution and truth in a sheltered society. Currently, Bay Street Theater is offering a staged version of “The Scarlet Letter” through its Literature Live! program, which is the theater’s annual signature educational initiative. The novel has been adapted for the Bay Street stage by Scott Eck and Joe Minutillo (who also directs the show) and some 3,000 middle and high school students are expected to see this production in the coming weeks.

Because it is aimed at students, the show runs with no intermission in a condensed 90-minute format. But the play is also being offered on weekends for general audiences, and while it doesn’t technically cover any new ground, it does provide a good opportunity for those seeking to reacquaint themselves with the tale of Hester Prynne to see it in a fully realized production.

It also makes strong statements about fear, power and the role of women that are particularly poignant given the current political climate. Is the concept of government control over women’s lives and the lives of their children an exaggeration? It certainly wasn’t in Hawthorne’s 1640s Puritanical society. Only time will tell if the same is true in 2017 America.

Chloe Dirksen stars as Hester Prynne, the heroine of the story, who, as the play opens, is being publicly pilloried for the crime of adultery. The evidence of her crime is the red letter “A” which she is ordered to forever wear on her breast and Pearl, the infant daughter she holds in her arms — the physical manifestation of her indiscretion. Despite the stares and spoken slurs of the townspeople who urge her to name her lover and co-conspirator, Hester remains silent in the name of love and loyalty.

Ms. Dirksen’s portrayal of the long-suffering heroine is impressive. Her composure and self-assuredness in the face of persecution, and her steadfast refusal to name Pearl’s father in the face of pressure, helps her morally rise above those who seek to condemn her — among them Hester’s own long absent husband. Posing as a doctor named Roger Chillingworth (Nick Gregory), he has secretly returned to the village and is determined to identify his wife’s secret lover, whoever he may be.

Offering a measure of support in the face of Hester’s detractors is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Michael Raver), the highly respected minister in the community. He strives to temper the vitriol of the gossipy goodwives (Jessica Mortellaro and Carolann DiPirro) who ceaselessly harass Hester and the child. When those in the village seek to remove Pearl from Hester’s care, it is Rev. Dimmesdale who persuades the highest elected official in the community, Governor Bellingham (Daren Kelly), to allow Hester to keep her daughter.

One particularly intriguing character that gets a fair amount of play in this production is Mistress Hibbins (Kathleen Mary Carthy), the deranged sister of Governor Bellingham. Her juxtaposition to the uptight townspeople and her propensity for spending time cavorting with someone she calls “the dark man” in the woods make her an ally of Hester. While the goodwives fear Mistress Hibbins as a witch, her unconventional freedom endears her to Hester and Pearl. Her refusal to bow to societal norms of a cloistered community are an apt metaphor for those who strive to remain true to themselves despite outward conventions. This, ultimately, is the theme of “The Scarlet Letter.”

Transforming a 19th century novel set in the 17th century into a 90-minute play designed for 21st century teenagers is no easy feat, and Mr. Minutillo and Mr. Eck have done an impressive job at whittling the story down to its core elements for the target audience. Though some of the blocking and the occasional need for straightforward exposition to move the story through time can make the production feel a bit stilted and preachy, given the range of talent in the cast, the production still succeeds quite admirably.

The marvelous set design by Gary Hygom is worthy of note as well. The rough wood stage is defined by a stark border of leafless trees that speak to the isolation and sense of mystery that must have surrounded cloistered communities like that in which Hester Prynne lived. These were societies in which rigid rules defined behavior and swift and brutal punishment came to those who broke those rules. The set speaks to the enticing nearness and liberation represented by the wilderness, which acts as a strong deterrent to some, and an attractive lure to others.

For Hester, the question remains — is it better to leave behind the apparent safety of civilization and take a chance in the darkness beyond?

At this juncture in history, it certainly feels like that’s a question worth asking again.

The cast of “The Scarlet Letter is rounded out by Luke David Young as Blacksmith Forrester and Preston Truman Boyd as Beadle Jameson. Original music was composed by Felix Bird. In addition to Mr. Hygom, the production team includes Mike Billings (Lighting Designer), Kate D’Arcy (Costume Designer), John Sullivan (Production Stage Manager), and Michelle Tewksbury (Assistant Stage Manager).

 Public performances of “The Scarlet Letter” are Thursday through Saturday, November 17 to 19 and Thanksgiving weekend November 25 to 26 at 7 p.m. A matinee performance will be offered on Saturday, November 26 at 2 p.m. Bay Street Theater is located on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Tickets are available online at baystreet.org, or by calling the Box Office at (631) 725-9500.