The Scarlet Letter

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 February 9’s opening night through February 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 loudly 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. A memorable production, beautifully presented!

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.

Weird Synchonicities

Or is that synchronisms? What I mean is when two unrelated things turn out to have something in common after all. Or when two totally different aspects of your life come together in an unexpected way. We’ve all had that experience, and the immediate reaction is, “Hmm. Weird.”

So, as a crime writer, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that in working on my family genealogy, the matter of crime comes up. Like the mysterious death of an ancestor in colonial Virginia and the two murders my family was involved in. (Stories for another time.) Looking back through old newspapers, I found a juicy crime story concerning my second cousin, twice removed, whose 25-year-old wife shot and killed her 18-year-old sister, because of her husband’s attention to the younger woman. The young sister must have been quite something, because a subsequent story said public sympathy was with the accused, and an acquittal was expected.  

Having vaguely in mind the kind of gems those old newspapers can hold, I was drawn to a recent story in the Library of Virginia newsletter. It reports on the results of a patron’s random inquiry into the nearly century-old newspaper record regarding far southwest Wise County veterinarian, game warden, and lawman JL Cox. The Library staff’s research found police-media relations were just as fraught back then as they are now.

A 1927 story in Crawford’s Weekly reported the attempted arrest of a man on outstanding warrants. Refusing to surrender, the man threatened the officers, including Cox, who’d come to get him. “We had to be shoot or be shot,” Cox told the paper. He said, “Some folks may criticize, but I’d like to know what they would have done had they been in our place.”

Two weeks later, Cox was involved in another exchange of gunfire. But a few days later, after Cox complained about the coverage of the event, the newspaper issued a correction, saying Cox had not returned fire. Over the next couple of years, Cox repeatedly called on the newspaper to correct stories about his activities. It’s a distant echo of today’s uneasy relation between law enforcement and the media.

After this frequent pushback, it appears the newspaper adopted a policy of not abrading Cox’s thin skin. The way I read some of the Weekly’s later stories, the editors learned to get their digs in more subtly: “Some may have criticized Dr. J.L. Cox, county officer, for being quick on the trigger in past performances . . .” Note the vague “some.” Politicians still use that gambit today. “People tell me . . .”

In a story about a stolen car, the paper suggested that “whoever did it thought they were wreaking vengeance on County Officer JL Cox, whose Chrysler also is a maroon coupe, because of his unrelenting enforcement of prohibition, traffic, and game laws.” Readers of Crawford’s Weekly might have had strong opinions about those laws and how vigorously they should be enforced. Talking about his “unrelenting enforcement” might not have been viewed as a tribute to his dedication. It was moonshine country, after all. (A moonshiner’s wrecked car and cargo shown above, police officer standing by.)

It turns out that Cox may have been too diligent for rural Virginia, and in 1931, he was shot and killed trying to serve a warrant on a man for dynamiting fish in the Guest River. The man claimed self-defense, but the case was dismissed. Why? Doc Cox “had been fooling with” the man’s wife. That story never appeared in the newspaper; the Library staff found it in the memoir written by the Game Warden who succeeded Cox in that post. The conclusion that can be drawn from this little research project by the Library is, I suppose, that times change, but people don’t.

On the Big Screen: The Boys in the Boat

The predictable uplift sports movie generally provide is one of the greatest sources of its appeal: big goal, lots of work, sacrifice, setbacks, and, in the end—triumph! And sometimes an inspiring musical score too, viz., Chariots of Fire, Rocky.

The Boys in the Boat follows this model almost too well (trailer). Written by Mark L. Smith and directed by George Clooney, it breaks no new ground as it presents the amazing struggle by an eight-man crew from the University of Washington to compete in the 1936 Olympics. You know, the one when American athlete Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes) won four gold medals and scorched Hitler’s hackles.

The ragtag crew, brought together in the heart of the Depression, was led by actor Callum Turner (playing Joe Rantz), with my favorite performance coming from the megaphoned coxswain, who calls the speed and spurs his crew on, played by Luke Slattery. The cinematography is beautiful, and there’s a stirring score by Alexandre Desplat.

Not only were the Huskies underdogs when pitted against the East Coast Ivy League rowing powerhouses, the boat Coach Ulbrickson (played by Joel Edgerton) chose to enter in the preliminaries wasn’t even his most experienced crew. It was his junior varsity boat. Noses were out of joint. But Ulbrickson saw in the hunger and desperation (and shoes with holes in them) a drive that might take them first over the finish line. Joe Rantz gets some extra motivation through informal “occupational therapy”—late-night sanding and painting—with the elderly boatbuilder, played by Peter Guinness, as they work on the new racing shell for the Huskies team.

The Boys in the Boat is a feel-good film and, as it’s based on a true story (told in a 2013 book by Daniel James Brown), you don’t feel like you’ve been manipulated into those good feelings. The scores below tell the story.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 57%; audiences 98%.

Ben Franklin vs. the Counterfeiters

Wartime is always an opportunity for foes to flood rival economies with fake currency. Destabilizing a country’s finances can bring it to its knees pretty quickly—a contributor to the social disorder described in Michael C. Grumley’s new dystopian thriller set in the near future, Deep Freeze. The value of real money drops and inflation soars. The historical aspects of counterfeiting offer equal inspiration to authors.

In colonial times, when the country wasn’t even formed yet and faith in its future may have been a bit shaky, counterfeit money was a particular risk. Colonials preferred to rely on coinage—they could always give it the “bite test”—but when coins were in short supply, they would accept paper money more as an IOU, rather than final payment. Eventually, of course, paper money grew to be trusted and had intrinsic value. Demonstrating how seriously the legitimate currency producers took this issue, Franklin and other authorized producers often printed “to counterfeit is death” on the notes they produced. And, indeed, several Tories most responsible for distributing counterfeit bills were hanged.

This was before holograms, imbedded security strips, 3D security ribbons, microprinting, color-shifting inks, and before at least 18 countries adopted polymer plastic banknotes developed and printed in Australia. Nevertheless, printers such as Franklin (he was an inventor, after all) deployed a succession of new printing methods and materials to foil the criminals.

Earlier this week—on Franklin’s 318th birthday—the American Philosophical Society (founded by Franklin in Philadelphia) presented a talk by Khachatur Manukyan from the University of Notre Dame on Franklin’s innovations. He and his team in the Nuclear Science Laboratory have done detailed analyses of some 600 paper money notes, printed from 1709 to 1790 to identify Franklin’s methods. Of course, he didn’t have these scientific tools, but he certainly was aware of how to differentiate his currency from that of a common counterfeiter.

For a time, Franklin printed the skeleton of an actual leaf on the back side of his bills (sage, maple, parsley, for example). A leaf’s complex structure is hard to duplicate. He used deliberate misspellings and deployed natural graphite pigments and colored inks that differed from the darkness and composition of inks counterfeiters usually had available, and his inks may have been more stable in color over time. He developed the threads of color in the paper, watermarks, and grainy, translucent fillers, like powdered mica to establish a gloss. Some of his efforts also made the paper more durable. One of his bills just “felt” right. As his methods changed over time, counterfeiters were forced to keep innovating too.

Counterfeit “detectors” and a good eye helped colonists steer clear of bogus bills. Cashiers who run your $20 under a UV light are following a long, venerable tradition!

Skeletal leaf photo by Mark Longair and Ben Franklin photo by Ervins Strauhmanis; both with Creative Commons license 2.0 Generic licenses.

Killers of the Flower Moon

You think three hours and 26 minutes makes for an awfully long movie? You’re right. Yet, Martin Scorsese’s true-crime epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, completely held my attention throughout (trailer). Even though I knew the story, because I’d read the fascinating book by David Grann that the movie is based on, still there were no saggy lulls. It is time well spent.

The New York Times calls it “An Unsettling Masterpiece,” which recounts the terrible outcomes of white men’s unrelenting, murderous greed when oil is quite unexpectedly discovered on the Oklahoma lands that had been considered so worthless they might as well be given to the Osage tribe.

If I had a complaint, it would be that there was too much attention to Robert DeNiro as the “King of the Osage Hills,” cattleman William Hale. (Hale even asks people to call him “King.”) He gives an excellent performance, but, unlike the other characters, he doesn’t change; he’s the same throughout—a malicious, manipulative, avaricious local operator—and you understand him from the beginning.

Leonardo DiCaprio sets aside any vanity and is neither handsome nor savvy in playing Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew. Because the tribe members are deemed incompetent to manage their assets, they are required to have white guardians. A quick way for a white man to become a guardian is to marry an Osage woman, just as Burkhart marries Mollie Kyle, memorably played by Lily Gladstone. Then if the wife dies . . . you can guess the rest.

Thanks to the oil, in the early 1920s, Osage members were the per capita richest people in the world. Much too tempting a target for undereducated, unprincipled roughnecks. Believe me, you’re grateful when Jesse Pelmons as Tom White, an agent of J.Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI, appears on the scene.

The movie was filmed on a grand scale in Oklahoma, though there are plenty of intimate, emotion-packed moments in which Mollie and Ernest demonstrate real love for each other. Her penetrating gaze recognizes Hale and Burkhart’s schemes, but loves her husband anyway.

The film is dedicated to Robbie Robertson, whose last project was composing its music.

At the beginning, there is what seems an unnecessary statement by Scorsese about why he made this movie. That opening fits when he gives its closing words as well, bookending the film during a creative approach to telling “what happened next.”

The ill-treatment of indigenous people was one of America’s two greatest original sins and, in the arc of history, this sorry episode was not so very long ago.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 85%.

Healing? Old Wounds

Just over a year ago, I heard a lecture by the author of a then-forthcoming book, Judgment at Tokyo, about prosecutions resulting from Japan’s WW II war crimes. We’re all familiar with the Nuremberg trials in Germany, but many people don’t know about the similar, yet more difficult and contentious, post-war effort in the Pacific theater. The book is out now, receiving rave reviews (New York Times; Washington Post), and is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Now, as the fog of war descends over the Mideast, we’re reminded of the value and the difficulty of trying to understand “what really happened.”

Judgment at Tokyo

Last week was the first lecture in a local lecture series on “Crime and Punishment,” which includes both real-life crime (true crime, writ large), and an examination of fictional crime, as in the works of Raymond Chandler and Victor Hugo.

The first lecture, given by Gary Bass, a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton was about the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal after World War II and is based on a book he’s been researching for years. I don’t know about you, but I was a tabula rasa for this one. If you’d asked me if there was such a tribunal, I would have said, “Uh, probably.” But I wouldn’t have been sure.

It’s interesting (and sad, really), how popular culture has shaped much of our information about post-WWII actions in Europe. We can probably thank Hollywood and Spencer Tracy for that—at least for periodic reminders of those dramatic events–and it’s a shame there hasn’t been an equivalently memorable treatment of the actions and personalities at the Tokyo Tribunal, which went on for twice as long (two and a half years). Though Americans may be marginally aware of it, most certainly the Asian nations that had suffered at the hands of the Japanese occupiers were acutely aware of these proceedings.

For example, China was consumed with memories of the bombings and privations its population had suffered, as well as the Nanjing massacre of 1937, during which more than 200,000 civilians were slaughtered. Post-war Australia and New Zealand were fixated on the grim fates of their captured soldiers whom the Japanese worked to death. Again, popular culture fills in a few blanks, if you remember the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai or Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the 2014 Booker Prize winner.

One of the most interesting personalities involved in the Tokyo trial was Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal (pictured below), who became the only one of the judges who insisted that all the defendants were not guilty, based in part on his questioning of the tribunal’s legitimacy. The interests of Empire and the U.S. use of the atomic bomb meant, to Pal at least, that no one’s hands were clean.He’s still held in high esteem in Japan today.

Europe-based World War II stories are a staple of crime and espionage thrillers. Thinking about the complexities the Tokyo Tribunal exposed, you may see a deep well of new and compelling inspiration.

A Man for All Seasons

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, directed by Paul Mullins, opened October 21 and runs through November 5, 2023. The story of Sir Thomas More, a man who not only has principles but sticks to them, seems a timely offering for our more elastic era. Of course, you may conclude that, in his case, that virtue went too far. Here a strong cast and excellent production provide much to consider.

Hewing closely to history, More (played by Thomas Michael Hammond) has become the Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII (Roger Clark). Henry is determined to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He has several reasons for this, but the most powerful may be that she has failed to produce a male heir. (Centuries later, science would prove that a child’s sex is determined by the father. Henry should have been looking in the mirror.) The Catholic Church, of course, opposes the divorce, and Spanish officialdom, represented by its emissary Sigñor Chapuys (Edward Furst), regularly pleads Catherine’s cause. More’s conscience won’t let him support the King’s plans, despite the loyalty he demonstrates by various other actions. Nor does he speak out against them.

The principal cast includes several additional notable characters, which the cast plays with great skill and gusto: the always a bit dodgy Duke of Norfolk (Anthony Marble), More’s devoted wife Alice (Mary Stillwaggon Stewart), his daughter Margaret (Brianna Martinez) and her fiancé William Roper (Ty Lane), whose political views shift with every wind. Also, rising politician Richard Rich (Aaron McDaniel) demonstrates his convincing slipperiness, Thomas Cromwell is less admirable here than in Wolf Hall (James McMenamin), and “The Common Man,” (Kevin Isola). Isola makes the most of the array of often-comic characters he plays—More’s servant Matthew, a boatman, a publican, a juror, a jailer. His every appearance is welcome. Additional cast and production credits in my review at TheFrontRowCenter.

In general, a readiness to compromise or to achieve the King’s desired ends by whatever argument necessary characterizes Rich, Norfolk, and Cromwell, in direct contrast to More. The play challenges you to think about the role of a counselor. Is it solely to follow the leader’s dicta or is it to help a leader onto a more conciliatory and constructive path? For all his staunch refusals to speak out on the era’s great questions—the divorce and the establishment of the Church of England with the King at its head—More does have opinions about these matters. He simply believes his silence will protect him from accusations of treason. In my view, he’s splitting legal hairs too.

STNJ productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

The Pianist

The world premiere of Emily Mann’s theatrical adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, The Pianist, opened at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick last weekend and will run through October 22. Directed by Mann, the show has an original score by Iris Hond.

The Pianist is Szpilman’s recounting of the annihilation of the Jews of Warsaw, and how he—a leading young Polish pianist and composer—survived. He had many dark days, but his music both consoled him and inspired him to keep living.

Why now? You may recall that Tony Award-winning Mann’s career has emphasized social justice, through such works as Having Our Say and Gloria: A Life. Szpilman’s story is, of course, a cautionary tale, and taking it on now is a timely move, as surveys show the Holocaust receding in public memory and as anti-semitic rhetoric and attacks are on the rise. It’s dangerous to ignore those past lessons, when around the world extremist leaders grow increasingly prominent. Who might their net targets be?

A terrific cast has been assembled for this production, including Russian-born actor Daniel Donskoy, who makes his American stage debut as Szpilman, bringing both passion and intelligence to the role. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. In Szpilman’s nuclear family are his father (played by Austin Pendleton), mother (Claire Beckman), sisters Regina (Arielle Goldman) and Halina (Georgia Warner), and brother Henryk (Paul Spera).

Henryk can’t stop warning his family about fascism’s deadly implications, as the dark cloud descends on Warsaw. The parents don’t want to hear—or believe—it. Much like Szpilman, his father loses himself in music, almost obsessively playing his violin, but bit by bit, the ability to maintain the illusion of normalcy or that it can ever be regained, disappears along with the city’s food supply.

Several other actors—Charlotte Ewing, Jordan Lage, Robert David Grant, and Tina Benko—take on multiple roles as resistance fighters, people who try to help Szpilman or not, and Nazis. The play’s short scenes build and deepen Szpilman’s despair, as the whole is knitted together by the piano score of Iris Hond, which combines her original music, classical pieces, and Szpilman’s own work.

Anyone who needs evidence of the significance of this production need only read the biographical sketch for actor Claire Beckman, which concludes with her gratitude to Emily Mann for including her in this work of art “and by extension my great grandmother Anna Frankova Pickova, murdered in Terezin in 1943.”

The Pianist is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717.

Reaching across the Black-White Divide

Two Virginia women—one Black, one White—working on their family histories made a serendipitous discovery and the connection that developed between them was much stronger than this 21st century mutual interest. Betty Kilby Baldwin’s ancestors were enslaved by the Kilby family, and Phoebe Kilby’s ancestors were the enslavers. How they met, how they came to terms with the past, and even more important, how they have become a model of racial reconciliation is an inspiring story. They told it in the book they wrote together, Cousins, subject of a discussion sponsored by the Library of Virginia earlier this week.

The power of their story arises in part from what remarkable individuals they are. Together, they’re even more so. Betty grew up outside Front Royal, Virginia. In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court mandated school integration in Brown vs. Board of Education, little changed at the schools in Warren County. The local school for Black children ended after the seventh grade. After that, they could attend a regional high school established for Blacks that was an hour away. Betty’s older brother was sent there and boarded during the week. After a year of that commute, her father found a closer school—only a half-hour away—for his two oldest sons, but the dilapidated bus the district provided meant service was erratic.

All the while, of course, there was a White high school in the county. Betty and her family made history, along with the families of more than twenty other Black eighth graders by insisting their children be allowed to attend the local Warren County High School. Betty became the lead plaintiff in a court case. Next came bureaucratic foot-dragging, then threats. But they persevered.

The commonwealth of Virginia retaliated against their efforts, in Warren County and elsewhere, with the Massive Resistance Laws and began closing schools rather than integrating them. As a result, 12,700 Virginia children, Black and White, were locked out of a public education. Eventually, of course, Virginia had to comply with federal law. Betty got her education, became a business executive, wrote an autobiography, and received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Shenandoah University.

Phoebe’s journey was quite different. Growing up in a White Baltimore neighborhood with professional parents, she had a career as a consultant on urban and environmental planning. After 9/11, she began to question the wisdom of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Waiting for business meeting with an official of Eastern Mennonite University, she learned the school offered courses in Peacebuilding, Conflict Transformation, and Restorative Justice. Maybe these courses could teach her to be a more effective advocate for peace. This educational process took Phoebe on a long and meaningful journey. When it came to understanding her family’s slave-owning past, she had skills in reconciliation.

Because of their experiences and education and their compassionate approach to the difficult issue of enslavement, after Betty and Phoebe met, they gradually developed a close bond. They work together in the Coming to the Table project, a nationwide initiative with many local affiliates attempting to create a more just and truthful society.

As Betty said, “We’re about the future, not the past.” Pretending slavery didn’t exist isn’t the answer; it only papers over a wound that, without light and air, cannot heal. As Betty wrote in Cousins, “We can’t change the past. All we can do is learn from it and make sure the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated.”

In need of an inspiring story? This is one.

(Almost) Lost to History

If we think about the pieces of the past that are “lost to history,” we likely think of events and places and people from decades ago. If you follow this blog, you’ll know of my enthusiasm for genealogy, so the past lives of many people in my family become vague and irretrievable only when I hit the 1500 and 1600’s (like my ancestor’s 1657 death, which was considered so suspicious the sheriff convened an inquest).

That in mind, it may come as a surprise that barely fifty years ago—in 1973, when the Beatles were still a group—a massive fire near St. Louis, Missouri, destroyed millions of records of U.S. Army personnel from both world wars and other 20th century conflicts. At the time, the federal government preserved a single copy of the Official Military Personnel File (OPMF) of every person who served. You may know how difficult it can be to pry information out of veterans—very often they simply “don’t want to talk about it.” When their descendants get bitten by the family history bug, these records are a way in.

At least they were. But, after the fire, 80 percent of them—17,517,490—personnel records were gone. In her article for Wired magazine, “Soldiers Stories Lost,” author Megan Greenwell quotes archivist Terry Cook: “Archives are constructed memories about the past, about history, heritage, and culture, about personal roots and familial connections, and about who we are as human beings.” The fire left a big hole in that memory.

What followed has been a massive and ongoing effort by the National Archives to save everything it can. It first had to dry the records, soaked by the days-long efforts of 42 local fire departments to quench the fire. It has had to fight mold. Some documents merely singed, some were utterly lost, and some would have to be kept in special storage forever. When staff members receive a request for information, if it is for one of the 17.5 million burned records, they first determine whether any record at all remains, any bit of the original. If anything can be retrieved, they’ve become expert in handling it, scanning it, and sending it to the requester. If all else fails, an infrared camera may detect ink patterns on a sheet that looks thoroughly blackened.

Although it may seem that the Archives efforts have been painfully slow, ironically, time has been on its side. Technological advances, like that infrared camera, didn’t exist until recently. Had they hurried the job, the opportunity to use it would have been foregone.

With the precise vision offered by hindsight, the building could have been better protected, a few trash can fires could have been investigated more thoroughly, electrical problems could have been corrected, the design could have included a sprinkler system and firewalls. Eventually, a careless smoker confessed the fire may have been his fault, but the extent of damage was such that the authorities concluded it’s impossible to pinpoint a cause.

What a relief it must have been when, in 2011, the staff and records moved into a new, much more fireproof facility, a tribute to their dedication in continuing this laborious work into a sixth decade!