by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Players by the Sea has opened “In the Blood,” a cutting edge play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The production will be on stage through November 12 in Players’ intimate studio theatre.
This play is an excellent example of how live theatre can vicariously take us into the lives of others so we can see how they manage to sustain themselves and continue to nourish their hopes for a better life while living in oppressive settings.
It is the story of Hester, played with great emotion by Lorraine Wheat. She has five children, the oldest fourteen, the youngest a baby. All are illegitimate, each fathered by a different man, none of whom has provided any financial support. As a result, she and the children live under a heavily traveled city bridge.
Brian Grant’s set design captures the massive scale of the bridge, and we even hear the sound of overhead traffic. The set also captures the squalor of the group’s living space. They sleep on mattresses on the ground with no sheets or pillows; aluminum cans and cardboard boxes are scattered about.
Hester receives some welfare support and provides her children with a regular diet of soup but frequently goes without food herself. A very attractive woman, she is financially and sexually abused by the men and women in her life, who take advantage of her desperate efforts to better her life.
The playwright was inspired to create this unflinching look at the plight of a homeless family by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter.” In the book, the central character (also named Hester) is forced to wear the letter ‘A’ on her clothing as a public acknowledgement of her sin as an adulteress. In the play, Parks chooses the word ‘slut’ as a label for her Hester, which is written in large letters on a wall; Hester doesn’t recognize the word because she’s illiterate. She’s working on learning to write the letter ‘A’ as a first step in learning to read.
Director Jason Collins and Assistant Director/Dramaturge Katina Higgins have done an outstanding bit of casting. When you go see the play, we urge you to go early so you will have time to read the notes from the director and dramaturge that will greatly enhance your appreciation of this production.
This is Ms. Wheat’s debut at Players; she has previously performed in a number of stage dramas and musicals. She appeared most recently in “Another Sign,” a musical about the situation of the homeless, at the Wilson Center.
The other cast members have all graced the PBTS stages in various productions. Steve Anderson Jr., who plays the adult Chilli and the child Jabber, appeared in “Superior Donuts,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Parade,” ” Julius X,” and “Crumbs.” Toni Lang Phillips is the Welfare lady and the child Bully. Ms. Phillips appeared in “Dividing the Estate” at Players, and has done several plays at Theatre Jacksonville.
Johnathan Ross appears as the Doctor and as the child Trouble. Mr. Ross’s PBTS credits include “Crumbs,” “The Full Monty,” and “Bug.” Evelyn Peralta plays the prostitute Amiga and the child Beauty. She was previously seen on Players stages in “The House of Bernardo Alba” and last year’s “Trojan Women.”
Kenneth Dowling is Reverend D and as a child plays Baby. Mr. Dowling has previously appeared at Players in “The Caine Mutiny” and has done a number of plays with Stage Aurora, including some written by August Wilson.
The cast does some remarkable acting as they switch back and forth from children to adult roles, changing both clothing and speech. You will gain a great deal of insight into the psyche of each of the characters in the excellently composed soliloquies delivered directly to the audience.
Jim Wiggins’ light design captures the bleakness of the surroundings. Costume Designer Dana Marie Ferger’s attire contrasts the dinginess of the homeless with the sexy fashionable attire of Amiga, the hooker and the well tailored suit of Reverend D.
Ashley Augustyniak is the Stage Manager and Amanda Eason as Properties Master is the “keeper of the clutter” on the stage.
Many adjectives have been used to describe this play. Words like ‘raw’ and ‘gritty’ are two that come to mind. As noted on the theater’s website, the play contains strong language and adult content and is not suitable for children under 16. In one scene, a prostitute explains that she plans to sell her unborn child and there are discussions and depictions of bisexuality and various sexual activities. But you come to realize that what is happening on stage are scenes that are real in varying degrees in cities throughout the country.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see this all-star cast in a thought-provoking piece of theatre with fine acting and directing and excellent production values.