By Stanford Friedman
A few years prior to winning a Pulitzer for Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks had the idea to write a play inspired by Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. And since plays often have minds of their own, that play turned out to be two plays: Fucking A and In the Blood. Now, the Signature Theatre has brought these pieces together under the same roof, giving us two different Hesters and a world of grief.
The premise of In the Blood is simple enough: a single mother, with five children from five different men, slowly combusts as society judges her, and each of the fathers deny her any sense of love or dignity, let alone money for food. Hawthorne’s influence is there to be sure, but Ms. Parks and her director, Sarah Benson, have drawn on a vast array of influences to create this captivating revival. A Greek chorus of naysayers open and close the play, marking the work as a tragedy. There are moments of playfulness that feel like 1960’s improvisational theater, sexually frank monologues that would be at home in the 1980s, a clear feminist political agenda as authority figures press this Hester (Saycon Sengbloh) to a medical full stop of her fertility and, conversely, a touch of musical comedy as Hester, for a brief and shining moment, finds a likely husband and the couple break out in a song and dance number that Rodgers & Hammerstein would have approved.
There is also a healthy dose of absurdity. We meet all five of Hester’s young kids, with the same actors then portraying the children’s own fathers, or the women that led Hester to their fathers. There’s two-year old Baby (Russell G. Jones), hilariously teething and being taught to crush soda cans with his feet. Then Mr. Jones goes from drooling to dry sanctimony as Reverend D., turning Baby’s talent into harsh poetry as he threatens Hester, “I’ll crush you underfoot.” The eldest daughter, Bully (Jocelyn Bioh) is a caring child who can’t sleep because her hands keep balling up into fists. Ms. Bioh later stops the show cold when she transforms into Hester’s self-absorbed and wickedly perverse Welfare lady. Michael Braun as protective son Jabber and elusive father Chilli turns in a strong performance as does Ana Reeder as daughter Beauty and the streetwise Amiga Gringa. Only the usually great Frank Wood, who normally excels at neurotic villainy, has yet to find the proper vibe. His performance as middle child Trouble is middling, and he has yet to solve the complex role of the pill popping street doctor who once took advantage of Hester and now wants her fixed.
Ms. Sengbloh’s Hester is a slowly ticking time bomb. At first, in control of her kids and providing what she can, it seems nothing can phase her. Then bit by bit, the clock runs down. There’s a pain in the stomach and a feeling that “a hand of fate” is blocking out the sun (beautifully lit with the actor’s hand indeed casting a shadow across her face). When the explosion finally comes, Ms. Sengbloh’s finely measured performance reaches just the right bloody crescendo. Hawthorne’s scarlet A shows up then, but white A’s turn up earlier, written in chalk, the only letter that the illiterate Hester can write. In realism, that would be a stretch, but here it is a pervasive symbol of Hester’s inability to move forward. It’s also not lost on the audience that a word that rhymes with A is employed throughout, a crude synonym of the word hysterectomy, usually applied to animals.
Louisa Thompson’s stunner of a set is another fine piece of dark absurdity. The script calls for Hester to be living under a bridge, but here she and the children dwell at the bottom of a trash heap and that trash heap is contained in what looks like a giant curved shovel blade, or perhaps the business end of a bulldozer. It extends the width of the stage and rises high enough for the actors to use it as a slide or a chalkboard or as a slippery prison wall over which Hester can never escape.
In the Blood – By Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed By Sarah Benson.
WITH: Jocelyn Bioh (Welfare Lady/Bully), Michael Braun (Chilli/Jabber), Russell G. Jones (Reverend D./Baby), Ana Reeder (Amiga Gringa/Beauty), Saycon Sengbloh (Hester, La Negrita) and Frank Wood (Doctor/Trouble).
Louisa Thompson (Scenic Design), Montana Blanco (Costume Design), Yi Zhao (Lighting Design), Matt Tierney (Sound Design), Annie-B Parson (Choreographer), Elizabeth Streb/Streb Extreme Action (Movement). Terri K. Kohler is the Production Stage Manager. The Red Letter Plays at Signature Theatre, at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St. 212-244-7529, www.SignatureTheatre.org. Through October 15. Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission).