In the blood, in the dirt, in the gutter — it’s all the same for the protagonist of “In the Blood,” a Second Stage production of Michigan State University’s Department of Theatre.
Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel “The Scarlet Letter,” the play’s script is not nearly as kind to its Hester. This Hester (Piaget Ventus) endures a life closer to that of Job: God, man and fate heap suffering upon her fragile frame as if she is a plate on the buffet line of misery.
Author Suzan-Lori Parks has crafted a somewhat uneven and often preachy script that does little to contribute to society’s awareness of issues surrounding the destitute in America. We already know that welfare systems are broken. We already know that the charismatic leaders of organized religion are often hypocrites. We already know that people take advantage of other people. The script offers no new areas of dialogue, no solutions, and little empathy for its own heroine.
Hawthorne’s Hester had one illegitimate child; the contemporary Hester has five. We never learn the story behind all of the children, only that of the oldest and youngest. The other three children’s fathers apparently didn’t leave much of an impression.
The baby boy, named Baby (Dennis Corsi), was fathered by the slick and icky Reverend D (Matthew Kaufmann). A con man of God who is sexually aroused by needy women, the un-right Reverend delivers the play’s tagline “suffering is an enormous turn-on” with such a veneer of scum that he makes the dirt stage seem downright hygienic by comparison. Kaufmann does well in delivering exactly the kind of performance we expect from this stereotypical character, a man who talks righteously but has no illusions about how wrong he really is.
The oldest boy, Jabber (Curran Jacobs), was sired by Hester’s first love, Chilli (Sebastian Gerstner). Having been just a smitten teenager when Hester became pregnant, Chilli had fled from his responsibility but carried a torch for Hester for 14 years. Gerstner has the Prince Charming looks to make us believe in the potential for a happy ending, as he serenades and twirls Hester around in a scene out of a Disney cartoon.
Supporting characters step up on a palette throughout the play, offering monologues that catalogue the atrocities Hester has had to endure at their hands. Her hooker-junkie friend (Steffi Hill), the Reverend, her caseworker (Char’Tavia Mushatt), her doctor (David Clauson) and Chilli all project upon Hester their own weaknesses and wicked desires. They create her in their own images, turning her into a sexual plaything, tapping into her instinct to survive and to protect her children.
While we learn very little about who Hester is beyond her role as a loving mother, we do get a good look into the psyches of these bottom-feeders, and all of the actors excel in these unflattering and challenging roles. They may be stereotypes, but they are still compelling to watch.
The Disney scene in the second act effectively ramps up the tension that leads to an explosive conclusion. Ventus shows her skill in moving from an almost childlike elation as her dreams seem to be coming true to becoming a completely shattered victim, crumpled in pain and defeat in the dirt. We may not know who Hester really is, but Ventus assures that we feel every ounce of her agony.
The story would perhaps deliver more of a righteous punch to the guts of the relatively privileged audience if the country hadn’t already been exposed to similar themes in this year’s Oscar powerhouse “Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire.” The difference is in the viewing experience. WASPs who want to simply dip their toes in the pool of guilt can rent “Precious” and watch it in the comfort of their cushy living rooms, on their cinema-sized HD TVs. It’s a sanitized and safe environment in which to “tsk” at the state of affairs of the social welfare system and the clientele that it serves. Or more accurately fails to serve.
However, those who prefer to immerse themselves in more immediate and visceral guilt should choose to experience “In the Blood” in the flesh. The oppressively warm Auditorium Arena Theatre, with its inherent close confines and stark utilitarian layout, helps to immerse the audience in the desolation of Hester’s world. This is not a pleasant experience, but there is a payoff in experiencing the bravery and skill the actors take on in this challenging piece.
“In the Blood”
State University Auditorium Arena Theatre
7:30 p.m. March 24-25, 8 p.m. March 26-27, 2 p.m. March 27-28
$8; tickets available at the door one hour prior to
355-6690 or theatre.msu.edu.