BWW Review: The Scarlet Letter Stands For Abortionist in Suzan-Lori Parks' FUCKING A
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" may have served as the initial inspiration for Suzan-Lori Parks' ferocious 2000 drama, FUCKING A, but, especially in director Jo Bonney's chilling Signature Theatre production, her sardonically abstract portrait of human cruelty may remind playgoers of another writer, Bertolt Brecht.
This is actually her second riff on Hawthorne's classic novel, which, as a pair, are known as The Red Letter Plays. Signature's production of the first, her 1999 drama, IN THE BLOOD, is now previewing.
The letter A, in this case, stands for "abortionist," and it's been branded into the skin of the play's protagonist, Hester, played with determined grit by Christine Lahti. Though scorned for her profession, business is steady and she resembles your friendly neighbor butcher, going about her business in a blood-stained apron.
Her good pal is a prostitute named Canary Mary (wryly humored Joaquina Kalukango). If it's a bit jarring in their first conversation that they occasionally delve into a fictional language called Talk (translations are projected above them), what's really surprising is when then break into "Working Woman's Son."
Parks peppers the play with such quick musical moments. Unlike the melodic and lyrically complex interludes Brecht wrote with Kurt Weill in works such as THE THREEPENNY OPERA, Parks' songs are more about being absurdist elevations of reality.
Hester's son (dangerously magnetic Brandon Victor Dixon) has been in jail for thirty years, and Hester has been trying to save up enough money to buy a visit with him.
As a starving boy, he stole some meat from a wealthy family, and was ratted on by, as Hester words it, some "Rich Little bitch." Played by Elizabeth Stanley, that girl grew up to be the town's first lady, and is suffering through a troubled marriage to the evil mayor (a grandly hammy Marc Kudisch).
As the plot evolves, there are violent moments, some of a sexual nature, but in the middle of it all is a lengthy, crazily off-beat monologue, beautifully performed by Raphael Nash Thompson as a sweet-natured butcher Hester meets in a bar. Describing the content of the monologue wouldn't begin to hint at how effective it is, but actors in the audience will undoubtedly appreciate how difficult it must have been to memorize.
This new production of FUCKING A comes at a time when America's elected leaders have become more vocal about their desire to deprive women of access to safe, legal reproductive health treatment, figuratively branding doctors who would offer abortion as an option with a scarlet A.
Perhaps the most tragic part of Parks' play is that there are some parts of the country that don't seem far from being places where, once again, young girls and women may find people like Hester to be their only option.