Suzan-Lori Parks is a contemporary playwright who some believe represents the future of American drama, but Parks is a woman more interested in the past. "History is time that won-t quit," Parks has written and indeed all of her writing is tempered by elements from America-s past. The setting of her 1999 play, IN THE BLOOD, is described as quote: here and now -- yet with a character named Hester who is haunted by the letter -A- it is clear that Parks is not simply addressing the present.
Parks- own history in Southern California is worth noting. She moved to Los Angeles in 2001 for a position at Cal Arts. The following year, her play TOPDOG, UNDERDOG won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Despite this success, Parks- work has been absent from Los Angeles stages for 10 years, which makes the current production of IN THE BLOOD at the Edison Theater such a notable event.
This play is often described as an update of Nathaniel Hawthorne-s 19th century classic, THE SCARLET LETTER. However, IN THE BLOOD feels more like a 1930-s social drama in the vein of Brecht or Odets, substituting an exploited worker with a destitute single mother of 5 fatherless children. But besides the name, the character of Hester shares little with Hawthorne-s heroine and continuous references to the letter 'A' feel labored. IN THE BLOOD often strains under the weight of these literary allusions which make for good conversation but divert from the unflinching human drama that is the real marrow of the play.
For this Los Angeles Premieire, director Laura Merchant has streamlined the text, cutting both the prologue and a musical number, but she still preserves the gravity and intensity of the play. The sets, given the resources of a small company, are minimal but surprisingly evocative. Hester and her five kids live in a shanty under a bridge and designer Andrew Deppen represents this with a simple collage of planks and debris that effectively act as both prison and shelter. The one technical misfire is the attempt to accentuate the setting with extensive sound design. The canned city noises that blast from speakers are both unnatural and intrusive, whereas Parks use of language more than amplifies the play-s urban atmosphere.
Merchant has assembled a strong local cast. RaChelle Stocker is a capable anchor in the central role. She glows with an angelic motherly presence that is crucial to the part, but is unable to evoke the necessary carnal side of Hester-s character. All of the other actors must double as adults in addition to playing Hester-s 5 children. The actors all make one of these roles work, but only Vonyse, a local soul singer, is convincing in both parts.
The acclaimed New York production of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG will arrive in LA next spring, but it is a leaner, less-challenging work. IN THE BLOOD represents Suzan-Lori Parks- writing at its most ambitious and this modest local production succeeds simply by letting the play-s ideas flow to directly to the brain and the heart.
IN THE BLOOD runs through August 9th at the Edison Theater in Long Beach.
This has been James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.