Do we want the theater to deal with social conditions, issues, ideas? Yes, always, constantly, and from every point of view. Do we want it to offer us predictable conclusions, morals, easy messages to take home? No, never. Too often, people who indict the theater for not dealing with “real life” only want it to tell them what they already know. Their desire’s understandable; after all, as Gertrude Stein remarked, we need a kiss a lot more often than we need criticism. But the Judas kiss of ambiguity is the only one the theater knows how to give. If we go home tormented by the questions it raises in us, it’s done its social duty.
Suzan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood is as co-gently phrased, and as unanswerable, as such questions get. It has the frantic feel of a trapped creature: On one side there’s its literary source, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter,its Puritan hypocrisy, loathing of the flesh, and obstinate individualism all carried over complete. On the other, there’s the terrifying everyday world of the homeless and their children, clawing to survive a crumbling welfare system and the flock of hard-nosed, harder-hearted exploiters eager to take its place. Parks’s Hester is a ghetto mother, encamped under a bridge with her brood of five, all by different fathers, including “Chili,” the flashy con man she really loved, and “Reverend D,” the reformed gutter-dweller who’s cleaned up hisact and is about to move into the churchly big time.
Though hopelessly out of synch with the system, enterprising Hester is a model of resource, clutching at every straw that can feed, clothe, and educate her kids. Eschewing her usual Steinian introspection and repetition, Parks tells her story in taut forward-hurtling prose, shot through with unexpected jolts of poetic feeling. The style, like the image of a driven mother with kids by multiple fathers, evokes Brecht but never apes him. In addition to Mother Courage, Hester resembles Courage’s Kattrin and the Caucasian Chalk Circle‘s Grusha in being crazy about children. In her naive generosity of spirit, which has made her the optimal sex partner of all the play’s other characters, male or female, she’s likethat other virtuous mother, Shen Te, the good person who’s also the good whore of Szechuan.
What Hester isn’t, though, is wily, like all Brecht’s women. While everyone from her welfare caseworker to the street-smart white hooker who’s her best girl-pal exploits her, she goes on believing until the thread of hope she’s clutched at finally snaps. The immediate cause is the state-ordered excision of her “woman parts,” and Parks gets another angle on reality by hinting that the whole event may be an anesthesia-induced dream: the reality of poverty as a nightmare from which inner-city women are trying to awake. But Parks, a woman of infinite dramatic resource, has plenty of angles: Each stage of Hester’s exploitation is followed by a “confession,” in which her exploiters get the chance to speak in their own defense. The last confession is Hester’s, implying that in some sense she’s her own worst exploiter. It presents her devotion to her offspring as a kind of bipolar disorder, violently repudiated and then megalomaniacally embraced. From there it’s only one step to the violence that settles unanswerable questions—directed, inevitably, against the children who are as much Hester’s enemies, in her struggle for survival, as they are her reason for surviving and, as the next generation, her survival itself.
Parks ventures far and digs deep; the script marks a quantum leap for her stylistically. Even so, questions crop up beyond the big ones she succeeds in raising. Isn’t Hester altogether too patient and passive? Why hasn’t she ever directed her anger outwards? Why is she seen as an anomalous loner when the cities are full of women with similar troubles (who’ve found innumerable small ways of helping each other out)? And—granting that even the most sympathetic souls have their own agendas—why must everyone else be so actively against her, and so unhelpful?
These are quibbles, ultimately, because Parks’s aim is to grasp reality, not reproduce it. To hedge the play’s stark us-versus-them feeling would blur its elegant formality as a parable. If Parks’s assertions oversimplify, it’s to boil her harsh question down to its essence: Having made it next to impossible for the poor to survive, how do we expect them to do it? Don’t like Hester’s answer? Better invent your own.
David Esbjornson’s production virtually invites you to open the discussion there and then, by seating the audience on the two long sides of the rectangular space, so that you can watch your fellow theatergoers react to Hester’s travails. You won’t have much time for it, though, sinceCharlayne Woodard, as Hester, is onstage at virtually every moment, and rivetingly so. If you’ve seen Woodard’s own storytelling pieces, her transformation’s as startling as it is total: Tight-mouthed, desperate, astringent Hester, with her inner pain and dogged energy, is a whole new person. Esbjornson’s had mixed results with her victimizers, who double as her children. Bruce MacVittie’s Doctor seems too fuzzy and sluggish-tongued for either his profession or his downscale clientele, while Reggie Montgomery’s dry-voiced, affected Reverend D could send any congregation to sleep. In contrast, Gale Grate is perfect as both Hester’s gender-befuddled elder daughter and her haughty welfare worker, and Deirdre O’Connell draws a vivid portrait of her buddy. Rob Campbell, charmingly goofy as Chili, is too refined as his son. But Woodard’s tragic dimension, and the power she finds in Parks’s fierce words, give the evening its stature.
**Stature is what Frank D. Gilroy’s Contact With the Enemy carefully avoids, trying for strictly honorable reasons to deal with its big topic only in small-scale, down-home human terms. That’s hard, since the topic is the human capacity for evil, as seen in the Holocaust by two U.S. Army vets who, having been in the unit that unearthed Ohrdruf-Nord, the first of the death camps to be discovered by the Allies, meet again at Washington’s Holocaust Museum and, while getting their oral histories taken, find their memories don’t tally about who did what to whom, not only at Ohrdruf but in the army’s treatment of German POWs. Striking and effective as it often is, the piece is weakened by Gilroy’s alternate waves of caution and carelessness: He takes great pains to establish that nobody involved is a Holocaust denier, and then writes as though a system of mass extermination and one individual’s act carried identical moral weight. (The U.S. committed worse crimes in World War II than those he describes—ask anybody from Dresden.) His treatment of the museum official who takes the men’s oral histories also goes through some weird contortions, inventing an elaborate personal agenda to explain an attempt to suppress information—all of which is so far from the practice of oral historians that it suggests either a lurking resentment on Gilroy’s part or a desperate need to make the character “interesting.” The oblique, minatory tone of Chris Smith’s production, in the same vein, keeps hinting at ominous consequences that never arrive; the worst that happens is that one vet falls off the wagon, and gives a moral lecture before reeling home. Still, the little (65-minute) play’s best passages have Gilroy’s springy conciseness, and pack a salutary sting, while Nesbitt Blaisdell plays the small-town vet tormented by his memories with a pained, craggy truculence that’s infinitely moving. Christopher Murney, stuck with the less gratifying role of his friendly antagonist, displays great patience.
**Patience is what audiences need to get through Arthur Miller’s The Price,a play in which the political becomes personal rather than vice versa. A cop who’s never forgiven his older brother for ditching their dad after the crash of ’29 gets a chance to never forgive him again, and takes it. Miller is open-minded, and proficient, enough to note that there’s fault on both sides, but he can’t help favoring the embittered cop anyway; even his wife, who’s pushing him to make peace for the sake of older brother’s financial help, ends up siding with him. It would all be dismissable trivia, despite Jeffrey deMunn’s hammering, wound-up-tight power as the cop and Harris Yulin’s slyly needling softness as his doctorbrother, except that Miller created a remarkable comic role for the one intruder, a pesky, philosophic used-furniture dealer older and grander than the antiques he peddles. From four New York productions, I can barely remember a moment of the familial bickering. But I remember Joseph Buloff, who was gigantic as the furniture man Off-Broadway decades ago. And I’ll remember Bob Dishy, who plays the role in the current Broadway revival. Though not on Buloff’s grand scale, Dishy is pungent, pointed, and funny at every moment; his best bit—indignantly snatching a wad of cash from his own hand when the doctor reaches over to take his pulse—will be this generation’s classic example of how a creative actor can convey, in one gesture, the complete essence of a character.