For many of us, her face is unforgettable. Though Margaret Hamilton's name might not ring a bell, cringing at her cackle and hiding when her green face filled the screen during “The Wizard of Oz" was a childhood rite for millions. Bypassing scores of mean girls and women assassins, Almira Gulch and also the Wicked Witch of the West, were ranked as the top female movie villains by the American Film Institute.
But the woman beneath the witch's hat was surprising and inspiring. "My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories," which runs Wednesday through July 21 at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theater, brings audiences an intimate theatrical encounter with the iconic actress. Ten years in the making, the never-before-seen one-woman show was written by John Ahlin for his wife, actress Jean Tafler, after a reviewer likened a performance of hers to Hamilton's witch. "Jean was miffed," Ahlin recalls, "saying I don't look like Margaret Hamilton." But since the character she'd been playing was a villain, he convinced her it was a great review. "I started to wonder if there was a play in Margaret Hamilton, and within about a half a day of research I discovered she's one of the most extraordinary women I've ever come across. She overcame so much in terms of how people treated her and getting past being judged on her looks."
Though she's mostly known for that one role, the play brings out that Hamilton had a decadeslong career in theater, film and television. Dozens of parts in movies like "Babes in Arms,” Frank Capra’s “State of the Union” and "The Anderson Tapes" stretched from the 1930s to the '70s. Before that, she was a beloved kindergarten teacher from Ohio.
Tafler and Ahlin traveled to Maine to meet Hamilton's family, discovering she was a kindhearted, hardworking woman, passionate about children's welfare. "My Witch" invites the audience to spend an evening with Hamilton, as Tafler tells stories, sings, plays the piano and does impressions. "We people the stage with the people she knew in life," Tafler says. "You'll see Mae West, W.C. Fields, Katharine Hepburn." And yes, Judy Garland will be represented. It's conversational, confessional, funny, moving, and tragic, Tafler says, adding "and a bit spooky."
As a single mother pursuing a demanding career in the 1940s and '50s, Hamilton's story still resonates, says director Will Pomerantz. "Particularly at that time, she had the strength she needed to overcome the obstacles in front of her, and she did it with such spirit and tremendous energy, and positivity. She didn't let things stop her."
Ultimately, echoing “The Wizard of Oz," the story is about love, family, belonging and home. "Not everybody has great experiences, but if there's love in our lives, we have a lot to be happy about," says Tafler. "If we can see the beauty in this woman, we can see it in ourselves. You can't judge a book by its cover."
WHAT “My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories”
WHEN | WHERE 2 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday; 5 p.m. July 19 and 20; and 2 p.m. July 21, Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay St., Long Wharf, Sag Harbor
INFO $40 to $135; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org