- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2001

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has the grace and discernment not to pull a Demi Moore and change the ending of "The Scarlet Letter" to a slap-happy one. Instead, Miss Parks takes Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale about sin, forgiveness and denial into darker, more disturbing realms.

"In the Blood," which owes as much to Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" as it does to "The Scarlet Letter," has a contemporary urban setting. Hester (Gail Grate), also known as La Negrita, is a young woman living under a city bridge with her five illegitimate children.

Anne Gibson's gritty two-story set in the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company production suggests the improvised homeyness of people forced to live underground. Endlessly in motion, as if stopping would mean giving in to despair, Hester creates a makeshift living space below the exposed pipes and metal catwalk, using jumper cables for electricity and gathering water into plastic buckets. There even is a concrete wall on which the children can draw with chalk — it is where Hester writes the one letter she knows, the letter "A."

The children — Jabber (Michael Jerome Johnson), Baby (Terry Alexander), Bully (Taunya Renson-Martin), Trouble (Fred Strother) and Beauty (Sarah Marshall) — are portrayed by adult actors, who also double as the grown-ups who use and then discard Hester as if she were a Kleenex with irresistible sex appeal.

The tightly knit, excellent cast is a bit discomfiting playing children. But as the actors relax into the push-pull rhythm of closeness and fighting that typifies families, we begin to forget that Baby has a luxuriant mustache and Beauty is very developed for a toddler.

Double-casting works on another level, too, because Miss Parks finds symbiotic resonances between the children and adults. Beauty is an affection-starved and unsteady child, while Miss Marshall's Amiga Gringa is the grown-up version of all of that greed and need. She is constantly on the prowl, scraping the streets and sniffing around Hester for a quick buck, the big score, the love for which she so desperately hunts.

The aptly named Bully sleeps with her hands balled into fists. Miss Renson-Martin is a more subtle but equally destructive force as the Welfare Lady, who comes on like Lady Bountiful but is really after Hester for a free massage, a luxurious hair-brushing and, on one occasion, a way to add spice to her marriage.

Jabber is Hester's favorite, a pretty child and mama's boy who tries to protect his mother from the ugliness outside their hovel. He also plays his father, Chilli, a pretty man whose broad smiles and seeming Prince Charming generosity toward Hester vanish when he discovers she does not live up to the fantasy he has built up over the years he was absent from her life.

Trouble is the son of the Doctor (also played by Mr. Strother), a street physician who is not above a little hanky-panky with his patient. Baby also plays his own father, Reverand D (for Hawthorne's Rev. Dimmesdale, of course), an up-and-coming street preacher who exploits Hester sexually while trying to maintain his pristine image to the patrons who want to build him a church.

Everybody uses Hester, to the point that it becomes almost ridiculous after a while — and one begins to think something must be amiss in Hester's brain for her to keep falling for the same scams and lines.

The adults behave horribly. Representing respectable society, they keep condemning her for having five children, but most of the men contributed to the size of the family. The women are too busy satisfying their own desires to help Hester.

They are all rats, but the cast adds distinctive features to the face of evil — Miss Marshall all crouching and venal as Amiga Gringa, Mr. Strother jocular and loose in his persona as a guerrilla doctor who casually justifies his dalliance with Hester, Miss Renson-Martin cool and proud as the Welfare Lady and Mr. Alexander a preening hustler as he masquerades as a positive-thinking holy man.

The repetitiveness of all this crass exploitation must be there for a reason, but the play dawdles through one episode of suffering after another until "In the Blood" approaches melodrama.

By the time Hester finally explodes, audience members are bowled over by the festering emotion spewed by Miss Grate. It hardly comes as a shock, however, because we know from the start that the innocent are going to suffer for what society did to Hester.

"In the Blood" contains tragic elements, but what separates it from authentic tragedy is the lack of cathartic purging. Also, we have no sense that the cycle has been broken and the next generation is the salvation because members have learned from their parents' mistakes. Hester's children seem as doomed as she is.

The play is elevated by Miss Parks' astonishing litheness with language. She finds poetry in squalor and gives Hester gorgeous speeches full of haunting imagery that are a mixture of street slang and high-colored oratory. Miss Grate is more than up to the task of pulling off Miss Parks' restlessly inventive and convoluted language. She is simply magnificent — sometimes better than the play. She plays goodness without artifice. She is good, almost like an animal in her pure simplicity. All she wants is a warm, nurturing place to raise her brood; when it is denied to her, she snaps like a sick, scared dog.

"In the Blood" may have its overdone moments, but the power of Miss Parks' language and the searing dedication of the cast to bring her words to harrowing life cannot be denied.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "In the Blood"WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 4WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre at the American Film Institute Theater in the Kennedy Center, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWTICKETS: $16 to $29PHONE: 202/467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org

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