All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Between playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and director Pirronne Yousefzadeh, all of the power, grit, and exposure of hypocrisy inherent in Parks’s “In the Blood” comes roiling to the surface where reality rules the day, and all the righteous people who purport to mean well have predictably failed at goodness again.
Yousefzadeh keeps Theatre Horizon’s “In the Blood” intense and authentic. The director doesn’t waste time on sentiment or banal twaddle. She keeps the tough, essential story of “In the Blood” stage center so all can see that those who claim to help Hester, living between blankets that shelter her five children, each from a different father, in a makeshift lean-to open the elements under an elevated railroad bridge in a large urban American city, perhaps Philadelphia, are as false and useless as a bureaucrat, a clergyman, and an allegedly apologetic scofflaw from child support can be.
Not that Hester is a paragon. She can be violent, ineffectual, and one who waits to be given instead of taking steps to be as independent financially as she is spiritually. But she shows concern, makes sacrifices, and procures all that’s necessary for her children, each of which has his or her own safety and security to look after. Hester may not live according to convention, not even the conventions of a perennial welfare recipient, but she has honor. Even when she agree to sell a bolt of cloth her social worker gave her with orders to cut and sew patterns for dresses to obtain ready cash her “partner” in the transaction will probably drink, smoke, or shoot up, you know Hester’s motivation is to buy an egg or something warm for babies.
“In the Blood” depicts a world that is as unrelentingly hardscrabble and is in engrained to the people who inhabit it. There may be moments of joy, affection, and even intimacy that come to the homeless Hester and her brood, but anything positive is tinged with dire poverty and squalor, not to mention the perpetual hopelessness, that is Hester’s actual, irremedial situation. Hester’s reality is not common, but it is hers, and it involves different codes, customs, and compromises from a sheltered, domesticated life.
Ashley Everage, giving her most outstanding of several impressive performances to date, is sympathetic, even though we are aware of the extent that Hester causes her own hurdles and hardships, as we see Hester descend from being a strong woman who can face the worst the world can heap on her to a disappointed, anxious wretch who is exhausted beyond caring and at wit’s end in trying to improve her lot or getting meaningful assistance to do it. This decline is all the more shocking because Everage is subtle enough to manage it occurring gradually and with some, but no overt or overstated, signs of disintegration.
Everage is excellent, but the breakthrough performance in “In the Blood” is that of Akeem Davis, who from “The Brothers Size” to “Henry V” and “Unnecessary Farce,” has displayed amazing versatility and magnitude beyond his physical stature. Davis, like everyone in Yousefzadeh’s production but Everage, plays two characters, but he makes one, Hester’s son, Jabber, so dynamic, and so on the brink of nervous explosion, you palpably feel his range of emotion and transitions as he moves from survival mode to family mode, while deftly endowing the other, Hester’s first and most genuine love and Jabber’s father, Chilli, with obviously duplicity, in spite of which you half believe, against better judgment, he may be capable of following up on his protestations of love and regard to be honorable and come to the rescue of Hester and her herd.
Also superb, as experience gives us to expect, is Forrest McClendon who plays a storefront evangelical on the rise, showing his entrenched foibles that go along with “inspiring” faith, and the youngest of Hester’s children, Baby, who communicates well for someone who has no speech.
“In the Blood” is suggested by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” but direct parallels other than Hester’s name, her children out of wedlock, a weak and sinister prelate, and the dramatic use of a red “A,” are few.
“In the Blood” is basically the story of a woman who has nothing — no money, no prospects, no ambition, few skills — and survives by wits that can be sharp and street smart but also addled by weariness and deceit and duped by techniques Hester doesn’t catch or understand.
Although she receives welfare, Hester has ho home. She literally camps out under a railroad bridge making a shelter of sorts by down blankets and cooking on a small match-lit rudimentary stove with pots that are washed with bottled water. For Hester, luxury is something clean to wear or an egg salad sandwich she is keeping for herself but ends up giving to one of her children, whose near starvation affects Heather more than just about anything else.
Hester knows men, and men tend to like her. The men she knows and by which she has children tend to be ghetto deadbeats who enjoyed Hester’s prowess at sex but don’t want to be saddled by their own children let alone four from another man. The most tawdry scene in “In the Blood,” though one that speaks volumes, involves Hester acceding to the preacher’s request to service him via fellatio. Recompense is promised, but as usual with any promise Hester receives, it never comes.
The saddest scene, other than the one that involves the Puritan “A,” is the one is which it really looks as if Chilli has come to grips with his love for Hester and his neglect of Jabber and wishes to make amends for 20 feckless years of abandonment by uniting them as a family but changes his mind and reneges totally when he learns other details of Hester’s life.
Hester has skills. She can’t read — Jabber gives her lessons to which she responds either temperamentally or dismissively — but she has a decent vocabulary, can express what she wants, and fire off a tart phrase or two when she’s agitated. She is also creative in how she keeps her family together and makes sure they’re clothed and fed, however scantily. Hester may do the maximum when it comes to defending her children, but she does the minimum in life. She doesn’t even seek to better her lot by seeking one of the jobs her government social worker proffers or by finding way to leaven her heavy, heavy burden.
You don’t judge Hester. One of the satisfying parts of Horizon’s production is the way Everage presents her character with honor. You may disapprove of her. You might think, like the social worker, that she’s blot or an eyesore. You may disdain habits that brand her a stereotypical welfare recipient. But, even as she contemplates and gives the social worker’s fabric to a friend, Amiga Gringa, to sell for $100 on the black market, you respect Hester for making do on her own terms. For all of her warts, you see Hester’s striving to get through each day and the care she gives her children, especially the youngest, a strength and resolve. Hester is just too busy and too exhausted after negotiating all she must just to make it to tomorrow, family healthily intact.
Hester becomes a symbol of a woman who is innately decent but can’t overcome the challenge of life and whose training in the streets makes her hard an unyielding, including at times when she should embrace a new idea to see it can relieve her from an ongoing malaise.
Everage’s Hester is earthy but not without dreams. She is, of necessity, practical, but she can’t turn her thrift and other survival modes into a conventional existence that might mean an apartment, some leisure, and a chance to relinquish the many chores a world without water, electricity, or other any fuel or light source had inflicted.
Hester is as independent as possible, but she has to contend with a social worker who continually cites statutes and sanctions as she threatens to take away Hester’s kids, and she has to use her finite imagination to find ways to feed and care for her children.
Hester can be a scrapper. She’ll argue about just anything with Amiga Gringa, who is more a woman of the marginal world than Hester is. At the same time, she’ll grovel to men the preacher in particular, in an effort to better her living conditions.
Hester is not naïve, but she is romantic and inclined to listen and hope briefly when Chilli returns to her life saying he wants finally to do the right thing and be a family with her and Jabber.
You see how complex Parks has created her to be. You also see the complexities she faces, with a will to maintain what little dignity and property she has but a lack of discipline so profound it can be the ruination of all she tries to accomplish.
Parks shows Hester being beset by the respectable folks around her. Hester knows the preacher to be an opportunist reprobate, but he is building a reputation as an influential man of the cloth and has to find ways to distance himself from Hester and the past she can bring raining down on his ascension to ecclesiastical stardom. The social worker, played with impeccable detail by Cathy Simpson, is best Park’s best object of satire. She has means at her disposal she offers to Hester, but you can tell she gestures more than she cares and that Hester can take or leave any offer as long as the civil servant gets to write a report saying she did her job, and the client refused.
Simpson’s social worker is sincere to a point, but she makes it clear she has a home, and a husband, to go to, and Hester is just one more file in her caseload. Ronald Reagan said, “The scariest words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,'” and Parks brings that to bear in her portrait of the social worker. Cathy Simpson is more coy in her portrayal. She plays the helper, not the leopard pretending to be a sheep, but she also brandishes weapons and makes threats than involved Hester’s cherished children. Simpson’s social worker means well, but like all bureaucrats, her ultimate message is, “Conform. We know better. There, there, how are we going to live on tax supported funding for ideas that don’t work if you won’t blindly accept our program?”
It isn’t that Hester’s beyond help. It’s that she’s shrewd enough to see through the social worker’s bourgeois traps. The social worker is sincere, to a professional extent, but is more interested in convention than reality.
Hester copes with reality. She stays up night while her younger children sleep, and Jabber prowls, to think about how she’s going to nourish her menagerie in the morning. She does without everything that leavens the lives of others. Not able to read, she can’t even look to a book for solace.
Her daily ordeal gets to Hester. She becomes more temperamental as she feels more hermetically entrapped in the life she can’t break free from and enjoys on a some level. Disappointments affect her more. She’s too inexperienced to scheme and is crestfallen when a bad idea goes wrong. One wonders how much longer Hester can stand the poverty, rejection, disdain, insecurity, danger, and squalor that compose her world. Her bravery is, from a macroscopic point of view, admirable in ways. She sails on in the worst of conditions against the worst of obstacles.
But Hester is human. She has to break. When she does, the destruction is harrowing. You sit stunned as you contemplate “In the Blood’s” most pronounced act of visceral thoughtlessness, or reacting rather than sowing seeds for greener, or even more suitable urban, pastures.
One wonders how Hester would fare if she was left to her own devices as a 21st century pioneer woman. On the terms of plains, her resourcefulness, husbandry, and method of raising her children would exemplary. On the urban cities, prey to all kinds of calamity and unskilled at the basics, Hester seems doomed, especially once her most romantic hope for escape is dashed.
Yousefzadeh’s production plays out Parks’s scenario, and brings out the author’s points, with great dramatic tension. From the beginning of Yousefzadeh’s staging, you feel stuck in the claustrophobic atmosphere that is Hester’s world. The director finds every shade of texture in Parks’s script so Hester’s poverty is no less chilling that the hypocrisy rife among the preacher, Chilli, and Simpson’s social worker.
Relationships are made clear. You see how much Hester loves her children and favors Jabber. You see her glancing friendship, a mixture of relief and contempt, with Amiga Gringa because she is the only one who comes calling. You see the preacher is as desperate to hide his history with Hester as much as she wants to kindle the past and exploit it for “quiet” money. True to the preacher’s slimy nature, he doesn’t come through with a penny for Hester’s acquiescence to his pleasurable sin or out of pity for the baby he knows is his. The sweetest scene in “In the Blood” is the one in which Chilli, older, more responsible, and being honest with himself, actually gives Hester a ring to signify engagement and asks her to marry him. That sweetness comes to an abrupt when Cathy Simpson, as the neediest and most inquisitive of Hester’s gaggle, enters and interrupts the spell Yousefzadeh has woven as Hester examines her ring and contemplates marriage.
Simpson makes that child, Bully, one that makes you waver between whether she’s adorable or irritating. Using a whiny voice, and always in some stage of distress, Simpson makes Bully into a strong character whose complaints and requests test Hester’s tolerance and mettle as a mother. Hester is stricter and more sarcastic with her other children. Because of Simpson’s portrayal, Bully does not fade into the woodwork and registers more clearly than even Baby or Jabber. It is Bully whose welfare you worry most about should something, almost inevitably, happen to Hester.
The mise en scene Yousefzadeh creates and the entire cast contribute to the raw power and touching, telling nature of “In the Blood.” Sam Sherburne is excellent as a doctor who makes house calls to Hester at her makeshift hovel and who combines out-of-place homespun advice with wisdom on which Hester can’t afford to follow through. Christina May brings some bright color and personality to Park’s play when she appears as Amiga. Sherburne also impresses playing Hester’s child, Trouble.
Brian Dudkiewicz’s set captures the bleakness and darkness of Hester’s milieu. The comforters hung to create shelter upstage right look worn, dingy, and weather-beaten. All of Hester’s surroundings look primitive. There is not a sign of beauty, nostalgia, or sentimentality anywhere. The railroad bridge looms ominously, and constant sense of fear, or apprehension, is established because Hester and her family as so much in the open and accessible to any attacker, ne’er do well, or social worker who wants to destroy the little enclave Hester has built.
Janus Stefanowicz contrasts the social worker’s neat blue suit and white blouse, and Amiga’s finery with the sweat-laden layers Hester dons. The children all look, appropriately, like ragamuffins. The preacher has a sharp pale suit, the doctor a suit that’s seen better days.
Cecilia Durbin’s lighting is key to the mood of Yousefzadeh’s production. The railroad bridge make Hester’s realm a perpetual gray, but Durbin indicates moments of sunlight and changes in the time of day.
“In the Blood” runs through Saturday, May 9, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets range from $38 to $34 with various discounts available and can be obtained by calling 610-283-2230 and or by visiting www.theatrehorizon.org.