“The Scarlet Letter” is a tale of lives restricted

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Kevin Isola is holding his hands in front of Amelia Pedlow
Kevin Isola and Amelia Pedlow in THE SCARLET LETTER. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
The cast of THE SCARLET LETTER on stage looking at a doll.
The cast of THE SCARLET LETTER. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter is one of the first great works of American literature. It has been adapted for the stage, screen, opera, and television. Its main characters are familiar types: fallen woman, guilty lover, vengeful husband, wild child – and the Puritans, that joyless lot of religious adventurers seeking their Utopia in colonial Massachusetts yet bringing with them all the human frailties they thought they left behind them in their fervor. Playwright Kate Hamill, who has brought her talents to bear on such works as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Dracula, Little Women, and Vanity Fair, has now turned her hand to Hawthorne’s story and crafted a tight six-character production now on view at Two River Theater in Red Bank.

The plot is familiar. Hester Prynne (Amelia Pedlow), a widow, has borne a child out of wedlock. She steadfastly refuses to name her lover, even under extreme pressure from the local authorities, Governor Hibbins (Triney Sandoval) and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Keshav Moodliar). She and her child, a little girl named Pearl (Nikki Calonge), become outcasts living outside of town, and Hester is condemned to forever wear a large red letter A on her chest. Into the town comes a stranger calling himself Roger Chillingworth (Kevin Isola), proclaiming himself a physician. Chillingworth attaches himself to Dimmesdale, whose physical problems seem to have no physical cause. Hester bears the brunt of the jealousy of Hibbins’ wife (Mary Bacon), and with Dimmesdale’s help fends off an attempt to remove Pearl from her custody. Deep secrets and hidden identities eat at the town and its inhabitants, slowly destroying all they touch.

Shelley Butler’s direction, coupled with Hamill’s script, conspire to turn what could have been a gripping mystery story with psychological overtones, or a condemnation of the mob mentality found in religious sects that have been given political power, into a form of melodrama that had gone out of fashion decades ago. Where the talented cast — and they are quite talented, based on past performances around the state and in New York, and in isolated moments here — could have delivered incandescently hot performances, here they never quite connect, and the whole affair has an air of emotional frost.

Pleasure can be taken, however, from the scenic design of Takeshi Kata, whose work is currently on display in Broadway’s Prayer for the French Republic. The claustrophobic design and uniform brown-ness of his interior sets mirrors the religious rigor of the colonists, while his forest and town exteriors, while giving the illusion of space, are not liberating but encircling. The use of set pieces gliding on from the sides of the stage or dropping down from the flies easily transport the audience from locale to locale, aided by Philip Rosenberg’s lighting design and Kate Marvin’s sound design. 

A special and delightful touch is the use of a life-sized puppet to portray the impish, willful child Pearl, operated and voiced by actress Nikki Calonge. The character is supposed to be half-human and half-animal, as likely to kiss a hand as to bite it, and the puppet design of James Ortiz embodies that in a way no flesh-and-blood child ever could. 

I wish I could have enjoyed this version of The Scarlet Letter more, or at least as much as the audience at the performance I attended. While there are some amusing and amazing parts to the show, and while the cast is highly talented and professional, the whole left me as cold as a Massachusetts winter’s day.

The Scarlet Letter is presented at the Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre by Two River Theater in Red Bank through Feb. 25th, 2024.  For more information, or to order tickets, go to tworivertheater.org or call 732-345-1400. Performances will be live streamed Feb. 16th, 2024 through Feb. 18th, 2024, and can be booked at the Two River Theater website.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.