For Kalamazoo Gazette, 09-24-10
Don’t look away
WMU play asks tough questions
“In the Blood” is tough, right-between-the-eyes stuff. You almost want to look away.
Western Michigan University’s University Theatre production of the Suzan-Lori Parks’s drama tells the grim tale of Hester and her five illegitimate children, who make their home under a bridge. Their usual main meal consists of “soup of the day” —water that the youngsters are encouraged to imagine contains whatever they desire, from carrots to diamonds.
Though she still hopes for “a leg up,” Hester is beyond trying to make ends meet — “The ends got further apart,” she says with powerful and humorous understatement.
By turns she threatens then embraces her rambunctious offspring, with their Seven Dwarves-like names of Jabber, Bully, Trouble, Beauty and Baby. “My kids is mine,” she tells a friend who urges Hester to turn them over to social services. “I get rid of them, and what’ve I got?”
But this is no Disney fairy tale.
Hester hasn’t learned the alphabet any farther than the letter A (to remind us of this play’s jumping-off point, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”). She has no legal source of income, and her own hunger may be causing blackouts and affecting her eyesight.
She also distrusts authority, but with good reason. Those chosen by modern society to help her — her angry case worker, the social services doctor with his jangling pill bottles, the hypocritical minister — use her for their own unseemly purposes, then push her down even further.
And each, in his or her own spotlighted confession to the audience, views their moral failings as being — you guessed it — Hester’s fault.
To maintain the tension for such raw emotion requires a great deal of energy from the cast. And, on opening night, they each delivered.
Aubrey James W. Hopkins, Chadwick R. Sutton, John Q. Williams, Chelsea Milan Waddles and Chelsea Wolocko each play a child and an adult, through the magic of quick costume changes. But they also manage to bring a convincing change of face, too, with each entrance as their alternative character.
They squabble, punch, chase, laugh, cry and bellow with the fearlessness the play requires.
In the center is Carmen Molina. As we watch Hester unravel — her heart-rending hunger for food, love, respect grinding her down — Molina’s shoulders twist, the light in her eyes lose sane focus. It’s a commanding performance.
Parks’s play asks many questions, but the key one is this: Whose responsibility is Hester and her children? And it demands we come up with a reply.
“In the Blood,” which runs through Oct. 3 at the York Arena Theatre, is tough stuff. You almost want to look away.
But you dare not.