By Victoria Weisfeld

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, brings to thrilling life the world premiere of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, directed by Shelley Butler, from opening night February 9 through the 25th. In the hands of Hamill, Butler, and a superb cast, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s poignant story moves along with both speed and passion.

Hamill has made something of a cottage industry out of adapting classic works, becoming one of the country’s most-produced playwrights. While Hester Prynne has numerous feminist fans, and while Hester’s story set almost 400 years ago reverberates even today, Hamill has not written a polemic. Instead, her Scarlet Letter is a story of love and revenge, almost equally thwarted.

Hester Prynne (played by Amelia Pedlow), a member of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, is a presumed widow, her husband lost at sea for some two years. When she becomes pregnant, she’s accused of adultery, whipped, and must wear a scarlet A, always. Despite efforts to humiliate her, she remains a dignified, affectionate mother.

Resplendent and full of his authority, Governor Hibble (Triney Sandoval) cannot persuade Hester to say who baby Pearl’s father is. Hester’s husband (Kevin Isola) unexpectedly returns in the guise of a doctor and blackmails her to keep his true identity secret. He’s determined to discover the father, not out of love or loyalty, but a desire for control. Meanwhile, the town’s clergyman, Rev. Dimmesdale (Keshav Moodliar) sermonizes about guilt and sin. Addressing the theater audience as his congregation, Moodliar’s delivery is pitch-perfect, and his portrayal of the conscience-stricken Reverend inspires great sympathy.

The governor’s prunish wife, Goody Hibbins (Mary Bacon), is not sympathetic. She’s embittered by unsuccessful pregnancies, and claims Hester has bewitched her. We know, as Hawthorne did, what a dangerous accusation this is, only a few decades before the Salem witch trials. (One of the presiding judges was Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, John Hathorne—the only one of the judges who never repented his actions.)

Most of the play takes place when Pearl is about four, and special mention must be made of the puppet that plays Pearl, animated and voiced by Nikki Calonge. As Hamill said about the decision to use a puppet, “In some ways a real child is too real. The magical thing about puppets is that they accomplish the real and the otherworldly.” Feisty, stubborn, uncharming Pearl seems determined to displease the Puritans, chanting, “I love sin! I love sin!” By clever staging, Calonge becomes Pearl’s shadow. You don’t forget she’s there, but it’s Pearl who shocks Goody Hibbins.

The admirable but minimalist sets work hand-in-hand with the sound design to move you quickly from scene to scene, town to country. Production credits to Takeshi Kata (scenic design), Philip Rosenberg (lighting design), Kate Marvin (sound design/composer), Sara Ryung Clement (costume design), James Ortiz (puppet design) and Will Gallacher (puppetry).

Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., is easily reachable from NYC by New Jersey Transit. For tickets, call the box office at 732-345-1400 or visit the Box Office online.