‘The Scarlet Letter’ retains its power in new stage version at Two River Theater



Amelia Pedlow stars as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter” at Two River Theater in Red Bank.

Before the play itself begins in the production of “The Scarlet Letter” that is currently being presented at Two River Theater in Red Bank, cast member Nikki Calonge takes the stage, as herself, to deliver a spoken message. She says the kind of welcoming things that people say at the beginning of a play. But she also says something unusual.

This “Scarlet Letter,” she says, “is not just about how it was” in the pre-American Revolution era that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel was set in (i.e., the mid-17th century). “It’s about how it is.

“You may have come here to see a play about people from a long time ago: A play about them. But this play is about us.”

The same thing applies, pretty much, to any work of art that has remained a widely acknowledged classic for as long as “The Scarlet Letter” has. (Yes, I read it in high school, as I imagine many of you did.) But the implication was that this work — touching on religious hypocrisy, political grandstanding, intolerance and misogyny — is particularly relevant to current times. And I don’t think there is any question that it is.

“It is a woman’s right to choose — repentance or damnation,” one of the heartless male authority figures in the play tells its central character, Hester Prynne (Amelia Pedlow), who has given birth to a child out of wedlock in the Puritan-ruled Massachusetts Bay Colony. She is not only whipped, in the play’s opening scene, but as further punishment for her affair — and for her refusal to reveal the child’s father — she must wear a scarlet A, standing for “adultery,” for the rest of her life, and live on the outskirts of town.


Kevin Isola and Amelia Pedlow in “The Scarlet Letter.”

Kate Hamill — whose previous works include adaptations of literary masterpieces such as Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice,” William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” — wrote this new adaptation, which is having its world premiere here, with direction by Shelley Butler.

Pedlow is excellent as the resilient, stubborn, fiercely maternal Hester, as is Keshav Moodliar as the tortured, cowardly Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale.

While Hamill is, for the most part, faithful to the original work, she does take some liberties. For instance, the story’s primary villain, Roger Chillingworth, is described in the novel as being deformed and as looking older than he is, but here the character is played by a perfectly normal-looking middle-aged actor (Kevin Isola) — which, in a way, makes his villainy even more, uh, chilling.

Hamill expands the character of the governor’s wife, Goody Hibbins (barely mentioned in the novel) into a brittle, heartless nemesis for Hester — as well as a woman with a surprising secret of her own. She is played by Mary Bacon, while Triney Sandoval plays her blustery but somewhat more sympathetic husband, Gov. Hibbins.

I won’t get too specific, in order not to ruin one of the play’s shocks, but there is at least one thing that Hawthorne purposely left ambiguous in the novel that Hamill leaves no ambiguity about, in her version.


Actress and puppeteer Nikki Calonge, left, with Amelia Pedlow in “The Scarlet Letter.”

In Hamill and Butler’s most daring move, they have the character of Pearl, Hester’s young daughter, portrayed by a puppet (with Calonge deftly controlling her, and saying her lines). Having grown up outside of society, Pearl has a wildness that makes her unlike anyone else in the play (and few characters in any other novels or plays, for that matter). She is mischievous and unfiltered; she is fascinated by her mother’s A, and by sin itself. Depending on your world view, she may or may not be demonic.

I think it is a good idea to have her portrayed by a puppet. It would be hard for a child actor to be convincing, playing such a strange, otherworldly character. And would it even be ethical to ask a child actor to do so?

But I found the uncompromisingly sinister-looking puppet itself (designed by James Ortiz) to be distracting. It was hard for me to look at it without thinking of the horror-movie character, Chucky. I think a more subtle approach would have worked better, in this department.

Two River Theater in Red Bank will present “The Scarlet Letter” through Feb. 25, with live streams available for the Feb. 16-18 productions. Visit tworivertheater.org.

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