By Dawn Watson
Life behind bars can be a living hell. But it’s nothing compared to the obstacles prisoners often face once they get out of jail.
Frequently without family, friends, or a support system of any kind—which is a huge contributing factor in how they ended up there in the first place—the former inmates struggle with daunting challenges to their basic existence. Reentry into society isn’t just about the freedom of release; it’s an incredibly vulnerable time, especially for those who have nowhere to go and not even enough money for bus fare.
“What do you do when everything’s been taken away from you and you have no community to fall back on?” asks actor Chloë Dirksen. “Where do those former prisoners go when they’re released? What happens to them? Who’s going to hire someone with a record?”
Like many of her friends and neighbors, the Sag Harbor resident hadn’t given much thought to the plight of prisoners, as her life hadn’t been touched by the circumstances of crime. But then she was given a play, “This Wide Night,” to read by friend and fellow actor Jessica Mortellaro, with whom she has shared the Bay Street stage for the past two years for Literature Live! performances of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
What Ms. Dirksen saw on the page affected her deeply. Not only did it move her emotionally, it opened her eyes to the senseless needless suffering of others. As a result, she decided to jump in and tackle the play, both as an actor and as a first-time co-producer. The drama about the lives of a pair of former felons, stages at Guild Hall in East Hampton from Thursday, March 17, through Saturday, March 26.
Written by British playwright Chloe Moss during a three-month residency at HMP Cookhom Wood Prison in the United Kingdom and commissioned by the Clean Break—a British theater-based education program that enables women offenders the opportunities to help them develop skills leading to education, employment and independence—“This Wide Night” tells the story of two former female prisoners who are struggling to make lives for themselves on the outside of prison walls. It’s a compelling narrative and one that ultimately touches upon the humanity of these women who are struggling to stay afloat, say Ms. Dirksen and Ms. Mortellaro, who is also co-producer and is co-starring in the two-person play.
“Delving into this world and learning about it has really opened up my thinking and made me think about the circumstances these people face and the problems we have in our society that are causing them to do what they do,” says Ms. Dirksen. “It’s so much easier to demonize them, and to say they should be locked up out of sight because they are bad people, but that’s not always the whole story. Things like poverty, addiction, lack of community create the circumstances for crime and ultimately make it almost impossible to break the cycle.”
The “Night” action begins on the day when Ms. Dirksen’s character, Lorraine, is released from prison. With nowhere else to go, she heads straight to her former cellmate’s apartment. Having been released a year earlier, Marie, played by Ms. Mortellaro, is struggling mightily to stay on the straight and narrow.
“It’s very clear very quickly that these two women are not the hardened criminals we’d imagine when we think of people who are in prison,” says Ms. Dirksen. “They are two people, who could be any of us under different circumstances, who are trying so hard just to survive.”
The story hits closer to home than most would imagine, says Ms. Martellato. Her mother, Vardi, teaches art at the Madonna Heights residential and day school in Dix Hills for adolescent girls who are healing from trauma. Many of the students placed there have suffered serious physical, emotional and mental abuse at home, which often results in negative behaviors. Members from the school will attend a special performance and talkback on Wednesday, March 23.
“We all need love and hope, regardless of where we come from,” says the New York-based actor.
In researching their characters, the two actors visited the Suffolk County Correctional Facilities in Riverhead and talked to some of the female prisoners, with Southampton Town Justice and former Sag Harbor Village Justice Andrea Schiavoni serving as their guide. While at the jail, they spoke with three of the women inmates and got to experience a few moments of what life is like behind bars.
“Being there, and feeling what it’s like with the sounds of the doors opening and closing, how you have to move through the space, it’s tough,” says Ms. Dirksen. “And then looking through the cell windows, where you can see cars and people walking around. See other being free …”
Judge Schiavoni also shared her insight and frequent experiences with the challenging realities of recidivism, says Ms. Martellato. The first-hand knowledge was very helpful, she reports.
“It’s very common for them to fall back into their old habits,” she says. “Andrea says that it’s a really tough cycle to break.”
Even though the play is about the two women trapped in bad circumstances, it’s still applicable to others. Even wealthy Hamptons audience members, who will surely benefit from the experience, says Ms. Dirksen.
“Ultimately, the play is about hope and the universal need for connection,” she says. “We all have that. Every human can relate to this need to be heard, to be loved, to be kept safe.”
“This Wide Night” by Chloë Moss will stage at Guild Hall in East Hampton from Thursday, March 17, through Saturday, March 26. Directed by Joe Minutillo, with original music by Felix Bird, the show stars Chloë Dirksen and Jessica Mortellaro. Tickets, which are $28 each, are available at