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Theatre in Review: The Red Letter Plays: F---ing A and In the Blood (Signature Theatre)

Top: Christine Lahti. Bottom: Russell G. Jones, Saycon Sengbloh. Photos: Joan Marcus

Signature Theatre Company's admirable residency program is a classic win/win situation, providing valuable exposure for mid-career playwrights while allowing audiences to consider these writers' works in juxtaposition to each other. Sometimes, the results are revelatory. A good example is Suzan-Lori Parks' "Red Letter Plays," written in response to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Both F---ing A (originally staged in 2003) and In the Blood (first seen in 1999) feature a female protagonist named Hester, who exists on the margins, an object of public scorn and controversy, her very existence laying bare the contradictions of the society she serves. The Hester of In the Blood is illiterate, but she can draw the letter A; her counterpart in F---ing A has an A branded on her shoulder. The resemblances end there, however; most glaringly, in In the Blood, Parks' distinct authorial voice comes through loud and clear, while F---ing A is an act of theatrical ventriloquism, an approach that severely undermines its deadly serious subject matter.

The Hester of F---ing A is an abortionist, a career that Parks presents with a blunt, bracing lack of sentimentality. Hester emerges from her operating room, her apron dripping with blood, looking the worse for wear; even her friend Canary Mary, a high-class prostitute, tells Hester that she stinks from her work. By day, Hester is shunned by the prominent and monied citizens of her city, who, nevertheless, haunt her doorway at night, availing themselves of her services.

Parks weaves an intriguing web of relationships around Hester, who works to raise the money that will allow her to visit --and, ultimately, purchase the freedom of -- her imprisoned son, Boy. Hester blames Boy's incarceration on The First Lady, wife of The Mayor -- who, as it happens, keeps Canary Mary as his lover. Meanwhile, violent acts are being committed around the city, and there's an ex-con on the loose who bears teeth marks on his arm, similar to the wound that Hester left on Boy's arm as a fierce memento of her love. The action builds to a ghastly mother-son reunion that wouldn't feel out of place in the pages of a Toni Morrison novel.

The bones of a potent political melodrama are there. Parks makes it blazingly clear that Hester's work involves blood and gristle while simultaneously exposing the hypocrisy of her customers. In the play's best moments, we see how the city's social system cheats everyone, the haves and the have-nots alike, of spiritual satisfaction; exploitation is the name of the game. But, for some mysterious reason, Parks has allowed herself to be possessed by the spirit of Bertolt Brecht, a strangely archaic choice for a young artist writing at the end of the 20th century. Despite Rachel Hauck's gritty, functional set design and the often-violent onstage doings, the action unfolds in a kind of fairy tale land -- a symbol-laden nowheresville -- in which few of the characters have names and where The Mayor, dressed like a Wall Street trader, leaves his house each morning with a wicker basket on his arm -- the better to go shopping with, my dear. The action is punctuated with Threepenny Opera-style numbers -- music and lyrics by Parks -- in which the characters complain about the way of the world, none of which land with any dramatic authority. Whenever the characters discuss gynecological matters -- which is often -- they resort to a pidgin language called "Talk," which is translated for us by the helpful projection designer, Rocco DiSanti. There are also bizarre digressions, such as the scene in which a butcher, who has his eye on Hester, allows that he, too, has an incarcerated child, a daughter, listing her many crimes in a speech that runs more than 300 words. It's certainly a showpiece -- handled with aplomb by Raphael Nash Thompson -- and it gets a big laugh, but it's the kind of jarring indulgence they warn you about in basic writing classes.

As Hester, Christine Lahti looks like a refugee from a Walker Evans photograph, her concave cheeks, lifeless hair, and dead-eyed stare all testifying to the effects of her grinding existence. Her performance approaches real tragedy in the play's later passages, as she comes to the gut-wrenching realization that her dream of filial reconciliation -- the only thing that keeps her going -- will be denied. Whatever is wrong with F---ing A, it has nothing to do with her. There are also solid contributions form Joaquina Kalukango as Canary Mary, who thinks she can pry The Mayor away The First Lady on a permanent basis, and Brandon Victor Dixon as Monster, the convict who brings big trouble to Hester's life. But Marc Kudisch and Elizabeth Stanley are largely wasted as The Mayor and The First Lady -- I assume these musical theatre veterans were cast for their singing voices, although they can't breathe much life into their songs -- and no other member of the cast makes much of an impression.

Emilio Sosa's costumes reflect the general uncertainty about where and when the play takes place, but Jeff Croiter's lighting is often hauntingly beautiful, at times suggesting the characters' desolate states more strongly than the script. Darron L West's sound design includes such well-rendered effects as surf, seagulls, birdsong, and barking dogs.

Jo Bonney's direction has its effective moments, including a Pietà-like tableau that is authentically chilling and a powerfully realized rape scene, and she makes the most of the play's later, darker passages. But F---ing Ais all over the place, its mordant points too often obscured by the playwright's try-anything approach. It's easy to imagine that this play will ultimately go down as a minor entry in Parks' catalogue of works.

Far more on point is In the Blood, thanks in no small part to a much greater consistency of tone. This play's Hester, also known as La Negrita, lives under a bridge, where she cares for her five children, each of them fathered by a different man. (It's interesting that, in F---ing A, Hester makes her living terminating pregnancies, while in i>In the Blood<, Hester is treated by everyone as an overfertile welfare queen.) In Louisa Thompson's imaginative (and ominous-looking) set design, Hester's home is a slick piece of curved brushed aluminum on which someone has painted the word "slut." From time to time, a large yellow tube disgorges piles of garbage. There is a second level from which various members of society periodically look down on Hester and lament her state.

Indeed, the play begins with Hester at center stage, while the rest of the characters hurl epithets like "hussy" and "burden on society." Some burden: The doctor who cares for her -- sort of -- recalls having sex with her in an alley. ("She was phenomenal.") He also urges her to have a hysterectomy; when testing her vision, he hands her an eye chart that spells out the word "spay." The Welfare Lady appears from time to time to offer her own brand of tough-love motivation: "The world is not here to help us, Hester. The world is simply here. We must help ourselves." But she also confesses to bringing Hester home to take part in three-ways with her husband. Reverend D. fathered one of Hester's children, but he keeps her at arm's length, for fear of offending his "backers," who are building him a new church. Then again, he isn't above asking her for a quick session of oral sex.

Hester's strange, symbiotic relationship with these parasitic do-gooders -- they loathe her for her poverty and sexuality even as they exploit both, for sexual satisfaction and schadenfreude -- speaks volumes about this Calvinist country and its blame-the-victim attitude toward the poor. No real attempt is made to improve her lot; indeed, the general view seems to be that her poverty is largely her own fault. The fact that she has a large brood growing up in semi-wild circumstances only means that they are all too likely to repeat their mother's life.

It's also true that, from time to time, Parks' voice tends toward the cutesy, in ways that aren't always helpful. If you don't like seeing adult actors play children, this isn't the production for you; the tight control that the director, Sarah Benson, keeps over the rest of the production goes distressingly slack in these scenes, as the otherwise solid cast hams it up shamelessly with little-kid voices and gestures. And even if In the Blood conjures a potent dramatic situation that speaks acutely and fearlessly to the present moment, it falls short of being a fully realized play, preferring to reiterate the same points in confrontation after confrontation.

Still, Saycon Sengbloh -- an actress who goes from strength to strength these days -- is a heartbreaking figure of endurance as Hester, a Mother Courage who does what she must to provide for her children, yet who holds on to her essential goodness in the most appalling circumstances. Also making fine contributions are Michael Braun as the father of her eldest child; Russell G. Jones, unctuous and sneaky as Reverend D.; Ana Reeder as Amiga Gringa, Hester's seen-it-all streetwalker friend (another parallel with F---ing A); and Frank Wood as Hester's pill-popping physician. Special mention goes to Jocelyn Bioh as The Welfare Lady, her grandly patronizing manner barely masking her sexual hypocrisy. In Montana Levi Blanco's wickedly observant costume design, The Welfare Lady's outfit is a masterpiece of accessorized bad taste, right down to the plastic bags she wears to keep her high-heeled boots from being contaminated in Hester's home.

The rest of Benson's production is equally accomplished, including Yi Zhao's lighting, which features an arresting moment when four light bars fly in to make a fence between Hester and the others, and Matt Tierney<'s sound design. Annie-B Parson choreographed certain movement sequences, and Elizabeth Streb, founder of Streb Extreme Action, presumably staged the many perilous entrances that involve sliding down the wall of the set.

Whatever one's feelings about these plays, they certainly provide confirmation -- if any was needed -- that Parks has plenty to say about female power and sexuality, and the societal prejudices against them both. She draws a direct line between the demonization that affects Hawthorne's Hester Prynne and her own Hesters, neither of whom appears to have much of a future. Together, theses pose a discomfiting question: Can we ever escape the Puritan, utilitarian principles on which this country was founded? --David Barbour

(2 October 2017)

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