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In the Blood

Theatre Review by Wendy Guida

When my students read The Scarlet Letter, they are quick to judge the Puritans, pointing out their hypocrisy and cruelty in judging Hester so harshly. They wonder at a society so hungry for judgment, condemnation, retribution. They are less apt to find parallels in our own society, though I see them in our modern-day pillories, the daytime talk shows. I needn’t name them; you know the ones. One difference is, of course, that the guests on these shows come on willingly, eagerly divulging their dark and ugly secrets to be booed by the audience, and sometimes attacked by fellow guests. In a new play by Suzan-Lori Parks, we are presented with a cast of characters who could easily sit on the panel of such a show, but through her artistry we achieve a level of insight rarely reached on that type of forum.

In the Blood is a modern-day exploration of the themes in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. However, instead of a judgmental Puritan society condemning Hester and her fatherless child, we have a supposedly sympathetic modern society in which there are a variety of social services to help a single mother. Parks depicts a world in which the people of the “system” take advantage of Hester in almost every way imaginable. Through six “Confessions” we are made privy to the characters’ true thoughts and feelings and it is not a pretty sight. The very people who we believe are there to help Hester-- her best friend, her welfare caseworker, her doctor--we see instead exploit her vulnerability. The people who judge and condemn her are more than willing to take what they can from her and justify their actions by blaming her compliance. How easy it is for them to pay her for sex and then condemn her as a “slut.”

Unable to read or write, possessing no marketable skills, Parks’ Hester struggles to feed and clothe her children, often going without food herself so that they may have what food she has. She attempts briefly to get work sewing, but she cannot see well enough even to thread the needle. She is not able to embroider the fantastic letter “A” on her bosom, but she does practice her letters by writing the letter “A” repeatedly. Just as Hawthorne’s Hester would never name Dimmesdale as her daughter’s father, so Parks’ Hester refuses to name her children’s fathers to “the Welfare.” Her loyalty is one of the few things she can offer the men in her life, though they have abandoned her. Her struggle is ultimately ennobling.

The supporting cast does an excellent job, particularly Rob Campbell and Deirdre O’Connell. Campbell plays both Jabber, Hester’s eldest son, and Chilli, his father. He captures Jabber’s longing for normalcy and his painful, yet funny, transition into manhood. As both Hester’s daughter Beauty, and Hester’s best friend, Amiga Gringa, Deirdre O’Connell plays one of the play’s most memorable roles. She is a perfect foil for Hester when she realizes she is pregnant again. In this capitalist system, Amiga would never consider an abortion since she knows her white baby will be a valuable commodity on the open market. Her line, “grow it, birth it, sell it,” is in stark contrast to Hester’s devotion to her “treasures,” though this devotion ultimately brings mostly pain to her life.

Oddly, Hester herself remains a rather sketchy figure, not wholly known. We see her through the eyes of all the others, but even in her “confession” we see only her final desperation, not her earlier motivation. The missing dimension is the sense she makes of her own life, the path she once imagined taking and the choices she took to get where she is now. We are left with a passive, though well-intentioned victim, prey to all those around her; this is less satisfying, and not altogether believable, but the journey is a fascinating one.

In the Blood, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by David Esbjornson. Scenic Design by Narelle Sissons. Costume Design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy. Lighting Design by Jane Cox. Sound Design and Original Music by Donald DiNicola. Starring (in alphabetical order): Rob Campbell, Gail Grate, Bruce MacVittie, Reggie Montgomery, Deirdre O’Connell and Charlayne Woodard.

Theatre: The Public Theatre (The Shiva), Astor Place.

Schedule: Tues. - Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 2pm & 8pm; Sun. at 3pm. Through December 19, 1999.

Tickets: $45. Call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or purchase tickets in person at the box office.


-- Wendy Guida