by Suzanne Daub
Every November and December, Theatre Workshop of Nantucket brings warm feelings of joy and happiness to audiences during their annual holiday production. This month, the TWN curtain goes up on the first-ever adaptation for stage of Elin Hilderbrand Christmas novels. TWN’s Producing Artistic Director Justin Cerne put his prodigious talent to work in creating a 90-minute stage production based on Hilderbrand’s Winter Street series, published from 2014 to 2017.
“I’m drawn to family stories and to anti-heroes who are flawed but you root for…They are easier to identify with, which draws you in. [In Winter Street] Elin created a large loving family with ‘cracks’ running through it. I was immediately drawn to the story,” said Cerne.
The seeds of his idea were planted on a Stroll Saturday four years ago: “Stroll Weekend of 2019, we had just finished Matilda… I was considering a future holiday show, and I walked past Mitchell’s Book Corner and saw the long line of fans waiting for Elin, who was signing her books. At the time, I was earning my MFA in screenwriting (I thought it would make me better at my job as an artistic director), and I wrote to Elin and asked her if I could adapt Winter Street for a class project.
“There’s Nantucket magic in Elin’s books, and there’s a universality to them. There’s a nice amount of drama to create necessary conflict and resolution on stage. I was also really drawn to them…these four books are about loving relationships that withstand a lot of obstacles,” Cerne explained.
Hilderbrand agreed, and with more than a dozen characters and many different scenes across the four books in the series, at one point Cerne’s adaptation ran 200 pages long.
For nearly 25 years, best-selling author Elin Hilderbrand has dominated the genre of Nantucket romance novels, writing more than 30 books set on our island. Like many of Hilderbrand’s novels, her Winter Street novels are light dramas filled with reunions and romance, hope and humor, disfunction and devotion. Unlike most of her beach reads, these novels—her first Christmas books—combine complexities and chaos with caroling.
Early this year, Cerne revisited his MFA project “I wanted to see if I could turn it into a 70-page play,” he said. In doing so, “I wanted to make sure that [Elin’s] fans would be satisfied, and I was conscious that people who never read the books needed a fulfilling story, so I decided to focus on the Quinn family primarily.” Good characters are key to books, theatre, movies, “and Elin has intriguing plot lines we can all connect with.”
To adapt the series of books into a successful production, Cerne found it necessary to leave out some moments that “felt iconic” in the books, and “some scenes arose that do not exist in Elin’s books but were needed for the connective tissue. Hopefully, I did Elin’s work and characters justice: I wanted to be true to the characters… after four books you know so much about these people. It took having the courage to rearrange the stories to make it work theatrically and be confident in my re-arrangement before I showed [the play] to Elin.”
Justin Cerne need not have been nervous when he gave his work to Hilderbrand to read: she loves it! “Justin’s screenplay eloquently and beautifully blends my four books…I was so impressed and thrilled at how he handled it,” Hilderbrand remarked.
Hilderbrand’s book The Perfect Couple is an upcoming series on Netflix, and other novels she wrote may be destined for screens, but Justin Cerne’s adaptation of her Winter Street series is the first time her books have been adapted for and presented on stage.
Not only does Elin enthusiastically approve of how Cerne handled her source material—“It’s the perfect series for this: my readers will be so pleased!”—she gives Cerne full credit for his work, stating: “the adaptation is a second piece of art,” and adding: “I can’t wait to see it Stroll Weekend…I hope it can become a tradition.”
Cerne commented that he’s thrilled that his adaptation and the cast and crew of Theatre Workshop of Nantucket can bring Hilderbrand’s books to life on the stage: “Elin has been gracious and excited through the process…after Elin read [the adaptation], she told me that it felt like it had always been a play,” he explained.
As the director, he’s also very pleased with the cast and the production: “the awesome thing about stage productions is when the actors manifest the characters and the director brings it to life. Realizing these characters on stage will be unique for Elin’s fans. We get to bring to life what was just in the minds of readers… The play moves very quickly—there are lots of moments—and some great holiday music,” Cerne described. “Audiences will fall in love with this family who is tied together by love. The holidays can be reflective along with the celebrations… I think this will help everyone feel warm and cozy.”
The curtain goes up on TWN’s production of Winter Street on November 21. Ticket are selling fast at TheatreNantucket.org: at press time, some shows have already sold out.
Nantucket Book Partners has Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter Street novels in stock in both Mitchell’s on Main Street and Bookworks on Broad Street. From 4:30 to 5:30 pm on the Saturday of Stroll Weekend, December 2, Elin will be signing her books at Mitchell’s Book Corner.
“This was the right moment for this production,” said Cerne. “Winter Street is being reissued this year with new covers…I hope we see [the play] more than once on the Nantucket stage… and perhaps it could bring some Nantucket magic to theatres in other parts of the country.”