The gifted writer Suzan-Lori Parks’ 1999 play In the Blood, which opened over the weekend at Portland Actors Conservatory, is a terrific, audacious, sometimes terrifying piece of writing that sneaks up on you sideways and then delivers a searing, visceral punch. It’s a vivid work of creative imagination with the deep pull of a folk enchantment, an into-the-woods tale where the woods are the tough concrete surfaces of the urban streets.
And the show’s advanced conservatory actors, under the sharp and piercing direction of Victor Mack, pretty much knock it out of the park. They give committed, thoroughly professional, audaciously transgressive performances as they suck the audience into a strange, bleak, tender, and disturbingly enthralling tale.
It’s a literary allusion, riffing mostly on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and partly on Euripides’ spiritually ravenous Medea, with some Brechtian breakouts for sardonic truth-telling as the action’s taking place. It features a witty, vulnerable, emotionally captivating and very dangerous lead performance by Monica Fleetwood, and superb double-duty acting by a supporting cast of five.
Fleetwood is Hester (cue Hester Prynne), the not-very-old and barely employable welfare mom of five illegitimate kids, each from a different deadbeat dad. Yet Hester keeps the kids together, in a tucked-away encampment under a concrete bridge, and is determined to make life better for them than it’s been for her. They eat, even if she doesn’t. They run the streets, but toe the line, sort of, at home. Hester can’t read or write, which limits her opportunities drastically. One of her sons, Jabber, is trying to teach her the alphabet, but she can’t seem to get past that scarlet “A,” which means she can’t decipher the graffito “SLUT” someone’s scrawled on the family wall.
Hester trusts people, and offers love the way she can, which tends to be with her body, which is what’s got her into this mess in the first place. And somehow, at least among the adult characters, she is much the most sympathetic character in the show, the only one trying to make sense of the larger picture and do something beyond herself, which makes what happens shocking and truly tragic and somehow, in the aftermath, understandable, as if we should’ve seen it coming.
Hester’s children are played by John D’Aversa, Jacob Beaver, Tyharra Cozier, Aries Annitya and Kristin Barrett, any of whom, along with Fleetwood, might become regulars on Portland stages sometime soon. Each doubles as one of the few adults who cross paths with Hester, mostly to deleterious effect: D’Aversa as Chili, her smooth-talking first lover; Beaver as an absentee dad and scheming street preacher who makes Elmer Gantry seem like Saint Francis of Assisi; Cozier as a snooty and criminally manipulative welfare worker; Annitya as a pill-popping slum doctor; Barrett as a streetwise “friend” on the make. Together they create an urban culture as hard and unforgiving as the concrete of the streets: something’s gotta give, and it’s not going to be the sidewalks. These, In the Blood suggests, are the odds stacked against the homeless and destitute in our culture, the ones who get piled with blame and shame.
Director Mack has dug deep into the linguistic and physical bones of Parks’ play and emerged with a clean, spare, surgical vision of what makes it tick. His actors follow him bravely into the abyss, and the wonder is that this sprawl of crudity and cruelty emerges with a heart of tenderness, interrupted. This is not a polite production. Enough groping of groins occurs to get Billy Bush fired from another job, and no one, really, besides Hester tries to go easy on anyone else’s feelings. The meek may inherit the earth, but they have to survive it first.
The impressive litter of a scenic design is by Max Ward, shabby-chic costumes by Summer Olsson, lighting by the ever-brilliant Jeff Forbes, and sound design by Mack and technical director Chris Mikolavich: the pre-show and between-acts song mix is about as sweet as they come. Grab a seat. And keep an eye out for that stolen billy club.
In the Blood continues through February 26 at Portland Actors Conservatory. Ticket and schedule information here.