"Outcasts – The Lepers of Penikese Island" at the Hebrew Center
Photo by Susan Safford
In February, actor/playwright Scott Barrow presented the first staged "workshop" reading of his new play, "Outcasts – The Lepers of Penikese Island," at Sally Cohn's Edgartown dance studio. It was a moving and amazingly polished presentation by seasoned actors. He brought a revised and longer version back to the Island Monday evening at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven as one of The Vineyard Playhouse's Monday Night Specials.
The play, still a work in progress, according to Mr. Barrow, is a moving exposition of the time when lepers were ostracized or virtually imprisoned if they had no monetary means. "They were the fear de jour," Mr. Barrow pointed out during a question and answer session after the presentation.
Mr. Barrow adapted the play from a book of poems called "Outcasts – The Penikese Island Leper Hospital 1905-1921" by Eve Rifkah, published by Little Pear Press. The poems are about actual events in the lives of the inhabitants of the Penikese Island Leprosarium, a hospital that opened in 1905 and closed 16 years later on the tiny 75-acre Island located near the west end of the Elizabeth Island chain, about one and a half miles north of Cuttyhunk.
Engaging in extensive research, Mr. Barrow uncovered many sources that he utilizes in the play. Text from the congressional record, newspapers, court documents, letters, and interviews from the time embellish the play. He said that he had just discovered some new source material that he worked into one scene the day of the performance.
The play follows a dozen patients from their expulsion from society to their incarceration on Penikese. Doctors try to understand and control the disease while the patients struggle with the trauma of being torn from their families and communities. The arrival of a sympathic doctor and his wife who battle the state and federal governments with some success improves life for the patients. They are able to establish a more humane protocol that helps the patients maintain a sense of dignity. The patients become better able to manage their fate while holding on to a sense of humanity.
All of the nine actors brought a sense of professionalism to their roles, often reading multiple parts with different accents. One of the actors, novelist and actress Nicole Galland of West Tisbury, spoke some of her lines in Japanese, which she had learned while in school in Japan. The other actors were Marc Carver, Brian Ditchfield, Brooke Hardman-Ditchfield, Marya Lowry, Erin Moon, Molly Purves, Peter Stray, and Robert Walsh.
Mr. Barrow has been a New York-based actor who recently relocated to the Vineyard with his wife and new baby. He has acted in many plays here on the Vineyard and has been coming to the Vineyard all his life. He first performed on the Vineyard in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" at the Tisbury Amphitheatre with The Vineyard Playhouse 15 years ago. He has been in many Playhouse productions since then, from "Our Town" to "Arthur's Perfect Christmas" to last summer's "Tennessee Williams: An Evening of One Acts."
Two years ago, along with MJ Bruder Munafo, he brought "The Laramie Project Epilogue" to The Vineyard Playhouse as part of a global simulcast of that play. Mr. Barrow has worked on and off Broadway and in many of the country's top regional theaters as an actor, a writer, and a fight director (fight scene choreographer).
The Vineyard Playhouse mainstage is closed this season for a major renovation, but their summer season continues tomorrow night, Friday, July 27, at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs with "Through the Night," a performance that embodies the stories of six men who experience an unexpected epiphany on the same evening that changes their lives forever.
The next Monday Night Special is this coming Monday, July 30, at 7 pm at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center with "Emily Dickinson, Emily & Joyce" in which the sweet poetic world of Emily Dickinson collides with the dark and dangerous world of Joyce Carol Oates to give you an unforgettable evening of poetry, comedy and the surreal. Directed by Carol Rocamora. For more information, visit vineyardplayhouse.org.