‘The Outcasts of Penikese Island’ at the M.V. Playhouse

Drama about the early 1900s when persons with Hansen’s disease were isolated on the 75-acre island.

Paul Padua, PJ Johnnie, Nemuna Ceesay, Shelagh Hackett, Gabreil Graetz, and Mac Young in “The Outcasts of Penikese Island.” —MJ Munafo

“The Outcasts of Penikese Island” at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse through August 26, is about rejecting those who are different. In the play, the outcasts are those people in the early 20th century in Massachusetts with Hansen’s disease, then referred to as leprosy, and their forced isolation in a hospital on Penikese, a 75-acre island located near the west end of the Elizabeth Island chain, about one and one-half miles north of Cuttyhunk. According to the Mass Moments website, in real life, over the years from 1905 to 1921, 36 patients with Hansen’s disease were forcibly exiled to live on the isolated island, along with a handful of caregivers. The site expounds on the stigma of leprosy, which began as far back as biblical times: “For generations, patients suffered not only from physical debilitation but from the misconception that the disease was caused by uncleanliness. Until the discovery of antibiotics, which effectively control the disease, it was public policy to remove people with leprosy from their homes and communities and send them to live out their lives in quarantined settings, like the one on Penikese Island.” 

Director Scott Barrow, who has worked on and off Broadway and in many of the country’s top regional theaters as an actor, writer, and fight director, adapted the play from a book of poems titled “Outcasts: The Penikese Island Leper Hospital 1905–1921,” by the Worcester-based awardwinning poet Eve Rifkah. Barrow relates that his old high school English teacher gave it to him, saying that it was a play, but upon reading it, Barrow realized it was not. Connecting with Rifkah, the two began collaboratively adapting the work for stage with the methodology created by the renowned Tectonic Theater Project, finding the solution collaboratively. Barrow was teaching the methodology of Moment Work, which stresses creating a visual language to convey the storyline rather than simply through dialogue. He explains, “The methodology wants to be in partnership with the dialogue, rather than a dialogue-driven play. It leans into the theatricality of the work. When we deliver the play through things like images and situations that are much more evocative or metaphoric, then the audience has to supply a lot of the connective tissue to understand it. And through that comes engagement, which affects the audience much more corporally.”

In early 2012, Barrow successfully workshopped the play here on the Island. That summer, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse included it in their works-in-progress Monday night play readings. Without the movement-based theatricality, though, Barrow felt it fell flat. It sat in a drawer for about nine years, and then last fall, he was teaching at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was supposed to help them create a play. “They are interpretative artists, so their skill set is to take the existing script and interpret it,” Barrows says. With a short six-week deadline to get a play up, he pulled “Outcasts of Penikese Island” out of the drawer. Almost immediately after it closed, M.J. Bruder Munafo, Playhouse artistic and executive director, contacted Barrow suggesting that he bring it back for an Island run this summer. He says, “We got Circuit Arts and Slough Farm Foundation interested in helping to connect the dots between the American Academy production and the one we are in now. It needed to be workshopped. We would go into the studio, and everyone had a say; it was collaborative. We were all working with the lights, writing scenes, and creating images together.”

“The Outcasts of Penikese” follows a dozen patients, the vast majority of whom were immigrants, as was true in real life, from their expulsion from society to their incarceration on Penikese. The families and doctors try to understand the disease and the community’s reaction, while struggling to help the patients, who try to maintain a sense of dignity and manage their fate. 

Referring to the fact that the real Penikese patients were overwhelmingly immigrants, Barrow says, “The exile is a social and a class issue. My organizing principle of what the play is wrapped around is the idea of how you can find a community and dignity when you have been removed from the general population and stripped of all your rights.”

she wrote it for him in support of what was happening to him and the gay community as a result of AIDS-phobia.

Barrow continues, “Eve wrote the play in support of her brother and what was happening to him and the gay community as a result of AIDS phobia. That was the outcast in her life. On the Vineyard, the immigrant story is there, and the Island does a really good job with compassion, but we all still need those reminders. I want audiences to walk away with compassion for the outcasts in our lives now, to have a moment of self-evaluation.”

“The Outcasts of Penikese Island” runs through August 26 at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. For tickets and information, visit bit.ly/MVP_Outcasts.