Fans of “The Scarlet Letter” will be pleased to know that its protagonist Hester Prynne is alive and well … and appearing this month at Bay Street Theater.
It’s all part of Literature Live! Bay Street’s annual educational initiative which brings classic books to life on stage, and Hester, of course, is the heroine of the 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who you may remember from your high school English class. The play opens at Bay Street on Monday, November 7.
Here’s the Cliffs Notes version in case you’ve forgotten the details: “The Scarlet Letter” is set in a Puritan village in 1600s Massachusetts. It’s an account of Hester Prynne’s life as a married woman who becomes a social outcast after an adulterous affair leads to the birth of a daughter, all while her husband is absent from the village. As a result of her indiscretion and subsequent refusal to name the father of her child, she is publicly humiliated, required to wear the letter “A” for adultery and live apart from the rest of society.
The story explores themes of legalism, sin, and guilt — as well as the role of women in a male dominated society. For that reason, there are lot of metaphors and analogies to be found in the novel, which has been adapted for the Bay Street stage by the play’s director, Joe Minutillo, and writer Scott Eck.
This is the seventh annual Literature Live! production and the fourth directed by Mr. Minutillo (previous shows include “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and “Of Mice and Men”). He comes to the project from a unique perspective, not only as a director, but as a former high school English teacher, which makes him uniquely qualified to translate classic literature to the stage.
Actress Chloe Dirksen, who has starred in several Literature Live! productions, plays Hester Prynne. She is impressed by Mr. Minutillo’s ability to bring often very dense material to the stage and make it palatable for the target audience — teenagers.
“I think Joe is uniquely qualified to direct professional productions with professional actors, but the purpose of this is, in large part, for students,” said Ms. Dirksen in a recent interview. “I don’t think most theater directors would be able to take it on in the way he does — direct the company and tell the story.”
Through her years of involvement with the initiative, she has seen first hand how novels brought to life on stage can inspire students, especially in this digital age. She also finds that the most beloved literature remains timeless because the messages it offers continue to be relevant for successive generations.
“If you’ve read the classics, you have this base for understanding humanity,” said Ms. Dirksen. “That’s what storytelling is, understanding ourselves and these big questions — love and hate, the way we affect each other, the choices we make — that’s learning to be a human. It’s about more than just reading a book for reading’s sake.”
“I get excited by the idea of people being sparked and inspired, thinking about themselves and choices they’re making, connections to lives and the way they interact,” she added. “That’s what I think is important about it.”
While the main audience for “The Scarlet Letter” will be the hundreds of high school students from 27 Long Island schools who will make field trips to Bay Street in the coming days for weekday shows, like previous Literature Live! offerings, this professional production will also play to the general public with evening and weekend performances throughout its nearly month-long run.
“We do the school performances during the week and have regular audiences on the weekends,” explains Ms. Dirksen. “The weekend audiences don’t even know it’s for kids. People are going out to dinner and coming to enjoy the play.”
“The Scarlett Letter” opens at Bay Street Theater (Long Wharf, Sag Harbor) on Monday, November 7 with school day performances. Public performances are Thursday through Saturday, November 10 to 12, 17 to 19 and Thanksgiving weekend, November 25 to 26 at 7 p.m. Matinee performances will be offered on Saturdays, November 12, 19 and 26 at 2 p.m.
Tickets start at $20 and are available online at baystreet.org or by calling the box office at (631) 725-9500.
Students attend Literature Live! performances for free, and currently, a group of donors has agreed to match all donations dollar for dollar, up to $50,000, to support the program. To donate, visit www.baystreet.org/support/donate/.