Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks
At: Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston
Phone: (847) 475-1875; $18-$29
Runs through: March 2
Ostensibly, this lyrical, heart-wrenching, and beautifully realized prose poem has ties to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Certainly, the elements are there: the red motif, the letter A, and a troubled, misunderstood woman at its center named Hester. But In the Blood is not derivative, nor is it even homage. It is a work of fierce originality, both an indictment of our own times, and a commentary on the hopelessness of those who are trapped in a downward spiral of poverty and despair.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is becoming a theatrical force to be reckoned with. Last year, she won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (for Topdog/Underdog, which will be produced by Steppenwolf later this year), becoming the first African-America woman ever to do so. Evanston's small, but ambitious and smart Next Theatre has staged something of a coup in snagging Parks' Chicago equity debut, which itself was nominated for a Pulitzer. Chicago newcomer Lisa Portes directs with a sure, sympathetic hand, bringing Parks' harrowing tale to life.
Hester lives under a bridge with her five children, all fathered by different deadbeats. Hester calls her children, 'my treasures, my joys,' and in spite of having almost nothing to live on, tries to provide a semblance of home and family for her little tribe. But the pressure of taking care of them, along with the condemnation she endures at the hands of her community (a kind of contemporary Greek chorus opens and closes the play, representing the fear and prejudice that Hester inspires in more comfortable folk), is causing Hester to begin to crack. A number of forces combine to hasten her downfall: the return of her first love, who embraces and quickly rejects her when he sees the size of her family, the appearance of another lover, who wants to use Hester for his own gratification, a doctor who urges sterilization, and a best friend who hopes to use her to make porno movies. It's not a happy story, but it's one that's so artful in its telling, so sure in its language, and so sharp in its imagery that it's compelling.
Aside from the play itself, the talents of the ensemble also keep us gripped, especially the stunning work of Karen Aldredge as Hester. Aldredge is an amazing talent; her Hester is a paradoxical blend of innocence and sexual cunning, of hope and despair, and of real woman and archetype, a stand-in for women who have been abused and who do not possess the tools to dig themselves out from under. Also outstanding are Phillip Van Lear (as Hester's baby and the reverend who uses her), Celeste Williams as a perfectly realized social worker with a smile that belies her distaste for her charges, and Cassandra Bissell, as Hester's best friend Amiga, streetwise and willing to sell her babies (and her soul) for a quick buck.
In the Blood will remain in your mind and in your heart long after you leave the theater, haunted by its final metaphor: Hester's sighting of an eclipse and her vision of it as 'God's hand … comin' down on me.'