In recent years, playwright Kate Hamill has found success in a historically difficult endeavor: effectively adapting well-known and respected texts for the stage. The challenge of finding the dramatic core of a preexisting story and shifting its expression to the unique dynamics of theater should never be underestimated. Musical interpretations of movies may dominate much of the current Broadway landscape, but that doesn’t mean they are any good.
Hamill looks not to movies for source material, but rather to big, classic, college-syllabus novels like “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Vanity Fair,” and “Little Women.” None of those are light reading, but Hamill has proven deft at finding and expressing novels and their nuances in a way that makes them seem like they always belonged on stage.
That skill is on full display in the Hamill’s latest world premiere, a stage adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” from 1850 at Two River Theater. Hewing closely to Hawthorne’s plot but winnowing the excess enough to achieve a coherent 90-minute telling, the play is tense and urgent. Hamill impressively captures the complex humanity that Hawthorne develops over the space of a much larger canvas.
The play opens on the scaffolds of public shame, as Hester Prynne (Amelia Pedlow) is whipped in front of the townspeople for getting pregnant out of wedlock. It is the mid-17th century, shortly after the founding of the Puritan (and very puritanical) Massachusetts Bay Colony, where Hester’s pregnant belly constitutes empirical evidence of sin.
But Hester only exasperates the anger of the authorities by refusing to reveal the father, even when locked away in prison with her new baby, Pearl. Despite the berating of Governor Hibbins (Triney Sandoval) and the gentler cajoling of Reverend Dimmesdale (Keshav Moodliar) and Chillingworth (Kevin Isola), a new physician in town, Hester remains resolute in her silence. With imprisonment seeming to achieve nothing, Hibbins frees Hester and banishes her to a solitary life in a cabin on the outskirts of town where she lives with Pearl (a puppet controlled by Nikki Calonge) and earns a meager living through needlework. Townsfolk like Goody Hibbins (Mary Bacon), the Governor’s wife, scorn and accuse her of witchcraft. But Hester maintains a quiet dignity as the mysteries over Pearl’s father and Hester’s long-lost husband continue to swirl.
In cultivating that dignity, Pedlow, Hamill, and director Shelley Butler create a powerful force that anchors the play’s drama. As the other characters often tell Hester, life would probably be easier for everybody if she would just confess. But Hester refuses to crack, defining her existence largely on her own terms. Pedlow’s Hester is not impervious to the barbs constantly flung at her, but she is nonetheless strong, resolute in the life she has made for herself and her daughter. Pedlow’s shoulders are back, her head held high and her voice never cracks: her Hester is a woman resolved to life on her own terms.
Under Butler’s direction, the rest of the cast finds similar depth in their characters. Isola’s Chillingworth evolves gradually and meticulously in the play’s short span, and Moodliar captures great conflict and torment burning inside Dimmesdale.
Accentuating and amplifying the play’s great tension is its scenic (Takeshi Kata), lighting (Philip Rosenberg) and sound (Kate Marvin) design. Kata uses just about as much space as Two River’s stage allows, invoking the vast openness of the new colony that nonetheless turns its judging eye on Hester — which Rosenberg shows in bright, stark light that casts long, foreboding shadows — with an oppressive force that emerges out of Marvin’s percussive soundscape.
Throughout this tense and gripping story, Hamill and her cast also manage to have a little fun. A few quick punchlines emerge unexpectedly, and Calonge makes the Pearl puppet precocious and occasionally charming.
“The Scarlet Letter” looks and feels entirely at home on stage in Red Bank, offering a fresh and perhaps revealing take on the novel. Hamill and company have escorted Hawthorne’s old story to the stage in a production deftly attuned to its lasting value and contemporary relevance.
“The Scarlet Letter”
Two River Theater Company
21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank
Tickets available online: http://www.tworivertheater.org. Running through February 25.