Jean Tafler is not the type of woman, or actor, to live and die by reviews — though one has changed the course of her career.
And, at first, she despised it.
In a modern interpretation of “A Christmas Carol,” a reviewer likened her embodiment of a female Ebenezer Scrooge — Eleanor Scrooge — to Margaret Hamilton, best known for her iconic role as the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Her husband, playwright John Ahlin, thought it was apropos. Tafler found it insulting.
“Jean was miffed,” he said.
“Yeah, I was a little incensed,” she agreed, “because I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I am not a dead ringer for Margaret Hamilton!’”
“But then I told her, ‘Stop, dear. Look at the review. Really read it,’” her husband said. “It was an excellent comparison. If you’re playing a female Scrooge, being compared to Margaret Hamilton a la the Wicked Witch is a goodthing.”
Two years later, Tafler had let the review go, not giving it another thought. But the same couldn’t be said for Ahlin, who hadn’t stopped thinking about it since.
“Somehow, I always had that review in my mind and the day came — I don’t know what prompted it — but I said, ‘I need to write a play for my wife,’” he said. “I wondered if there was a play in Margaret Hamilton, and literally within half a day, I had my answer. Who she was and what she did and what she went through just started unfolding before us.”
Over the past decade, the couple came to know Hamilton through endless research, which became the bones of Ahlin’s newest play, “My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories,” opening Wednesday afternoon at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, as a bonus production in this year’s MainStage season. Directed by Will Pomerantz, it marks Tafler’s first one-woman show.
“It’s an afternoon with this woman, Margaret Hamilton,” Tafler said, “and she’s telling you stories about her life, but there’s a little thread of discovery through it that she is also discovering and looking back on her life.”
“Something big has happened and she doesn’t realize it yet, and through the course of the play, it dawns on her,” Ahlin added. “So there’s some mystery and some intrigue, in addition to her recounting this amazing life. There is this intrigue that both she and the audience figure out at the same time, and it’s quite stunning, it’s quite moving and it’s quite interesting.”
Born in circa-1902 Cleveland, Hamilton had a full life before taking on the role that defined her public persona. She was a schoolteacher. She was a single mother to one son, Hamilton Meserve. She was a person with drive, passion and strength — not just a witch.
“The public mostly knew her as the Wicked Witch, which has almost nothing to do with who she is — however, not really,” Tafler said. “In the course of the play, Margaret comes to terms with that image of the witch and comes to own that a little bit: that, yes, indeed, a part of her is that witch. She was able to pull it out and create that amazing performance, even though she was a kindergarten teacher brought up so properly in Cleveland.”
With zero biographies written on Hamilton, the couple had to take extra lengths to understand the character actress inside and out, including a trip to her former home on a small island off the coast of Booth Bay, Maine. It is just a short rowboat ride to the windswept Cape Island, where her cottage still sits today and remains in the family.
“I would call it a haven for an artist,” Tafler said of the cottage. “That’s what I would call it. It has served as that even before Margaret Hamilton. There was an artist who lived there before her.”
The artistic legacy continued with Ahlin, who described it as “the most beautiful little thing you’ve ever seen.”
“It’s gorgeous. It’s like a fantasy. It’s like a dream,” he said. “Just being inside it, I got this feeling that she must have had when she came there. And these feelings, these passions that she had — Margaret Hamilton as a person and also as an actress — figure very prominently in the play. It’s just a place of inspiration, strangely. And that’s what I tried to put into the play.
“We said it right in that cottage: ‘The play takes place on the island, in the cottage.’”
With an established setting, the writing process began — predominantly for Ahlin, with Tafler as a sounding board and occasional devil’s advocate. Collaboration is “easy,” the playwright said, “because we have a built-in system for arguing about things.”
His wife laughed knowingly.
“It’s fun, but the problem is, at breakfast, I’ll go, ‘Dear, what do you think of changing this word?’ and she says, ‘Would you let me eat my cereal?’”
“John is very exacting — that’s what makes him a good writer,” Tafler said. “Will and John have worked on perfecting the play and honing in on the exact right phrase and the exact right word. These very small changes are a little mind-boggling for me. I had to keep re-learning.”
“And she’s doing great,” Ahlin said. “It’s an 85-minute play and it’s all her.”
“And I’ve never done a one-woman show before,” she said.
To truly transform into the leading lady, Tafler will wear a custom-made hawk nose built by makeup artist Vince Collura. Hamilton’s Cyrano-like feature was the emblem of her film, television and stage career, until she died in 1985 at age 82.
“The one thing that’s quite amazing to me is she had this great career, battling Hollywood’s image of what feminine beauty is. She was certainly outside the conventional beauty,” Tafler said. “Several people suggested she get cosmetic surgery and fix her nose, and she refused. That was that streak of stubbornness in her: ‘Don’t tell me what to do. I like my face the way it is.’
“Actually, I don’t think she would have had the great career she had if she had a nose job,” she added.
For Tafler, portraying Hamilton is the first step toward becoming a character actor herself — a person she knows she has been all along, but has refused to accept for the majority of her own career.
“It’s all grown on me; it took me a while for me to come around. It’s time for me to think of myself as a character actor,” she said. “And in this role, I think you come away feeling like you know her and you spent some time with her and now you’re her friend. I hope that’s what audiences come away with.”
“We’re really pleased with the initial reactions we’re getting to her,” her husband said.
After all, any comparison to Margaret Hamilton is a welcome one these days, Tafler said.
“My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories,” written by John Ahlin and starring Jean Tafler, will open on Wednesday, July 17, at 2 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Additional performances will be held Thursday, July 18, at 8 p.m., Friday, July 19, and Saturday, July 20, at 5 p.m., and Sunday, July 21, at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $40 to $135. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.