The opening scene of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood” calls our attention to the word “slut,” slashed across the floor in large white letters, and how Hester (RaShelle Stocker), homeless mother of five living under a bridge, is too illiterate to read it or fully grasp the insult. This strongly establishes the predicament of a pathetically promiscuous woman unable, or unwilling, to educate herself beyond her circumstances.
As written by 2002 Pulitzer prize winner Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”), the 1999 play, an updating of “The Scarlet Letter,” is a stark, uncompromising drama. Individual details are honest, but the visceral horror of suffering and starvation fails to come across. This difficulty is intensified by miscasting Stocker in the central role. The actress is competent without being electric enough to make us feel the magnitude of the heroine’s mounting despair.
Action is authentically launched by Andrew Deppen’s set, consisting of tin cans and cardboard boxes hanging from a series of vertical poles, and the sound of overhead passing cars contributed by Matt Anderson and David Ledger. Hester must raise her illegitimate brood (“my five treasures”) in this shabby environment: sweet but slow-thinking Jabber (Kenneth McClain), 2-year-old Baby (Kevin Nichols), oldest daughter Bully (Vonyse), middle son Trouble (Joseph R. Lynch) and youngest daughter Beauty (Emily Duval). Her love-hate emotions for them force her into frantic outbursts, and she reaches for rescue to victimizers who repeatedly let her down in the past.
These exploitative figures, represented by the same actors who play her children, stand before us and expose their shortcomings in revealing monologues that generally transcend staginess. Rev. D (Nichols) captures the hypocritical duality of a preacher who fathered one of Hester’s children, withholds support and demeans Hester with a demand for oral sex. Amiga, her prostitute friend (Duval), cheats her financially and pushes her to give up a possible job. The Welfare Lady (Vonyse) wants their former lesbian relationship resumed and shot as a porn film. Even the sympathetic doctor (Lynch) who pressures Hester into a hysterectomy once availed himself of her “very motherly, very obliging” sexual favors because “I couldn’t help it.”
Director Laura Marchant capably guides the cast and is at her best shaping the Reverend’s characterization. Nichols adopts a swaggeringly musical body rhythm and speech that perfectly defines his overwhelming self-love. Duval’s Amiga, in flimsy skirt and hot pink sandals, is convincing if overly refined, and Lynch, more than anyone in the show, conveys the sense of a man trying to do the right thing, despite his all-too-human frailties.
The adults are more intriguing and intricately drawn than Hester’s children, and the story is only moderately interesting until Chilli (McClain), Hester’s first lover and father of Jabber, returns with a wedding proposal, unaware that his childhood sweetheart has given birth to four other offspring in his absence. McClain’s Chilli is the production’s standout portrayal, and his rejection of Hester upon learning the truth is powerful, because it clearly represents her last chance.
Hester needs a larger-than-life quality that enables people to see themselves in her. We never learn what drove her to degradation, why she can’t learn to write beyond the letter “A” or seek help through shelters. The character is sketchily conceived, and Stocker doesn’t fill in the missing spaces. Ultimately, Hester is too weak a protagonist, too much the victim, and her final litany, “Never shoulda haddem,” following an act of violence, is more of a shallow cry than a soul-shattering scream.