The setup: Never known as a shrinking violet, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog, Venus, Fucking A) uses rich, provocative language to sear her social conscience into ours, forcing us to see contemporary life from new, vibrant angles. Her plays are definitely hot, if not radioactive. In the Blood (1999), a riff on Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, chronicles the life on the streets of homeless Hester (Florence Garvey in a devastating performance). On the surface, it tells of how society looks away, how even the services set up to alleviate the problem only continue and abet it. But underneath, tumultuous and raging, swirl currents of pain and hopelessness and love gone terribly wrong. Hester's cries for help turn into screams.
The execution: The Back Porch Players gives Parks's expressionistic tale a startling, sterling production. From the simple set of concrete barricades and bridge piers (Blake Minor), grimy costumes (Patricia Covington), detailed lighting (Riana Canetti-Rios), eerie sound and original music (Travis Ammons), all under the powerful sweep of David Rainey's direction, the exemplary cast combusts this play into life. Anchored by Garvey's piercing and woeful Hester, this is frighteningly superb theater.
Spinning out of control, Hester's used by everyone. Her best friend on the streets, prostitute Amiga (Kris Carr), opportunistic and always scheming, thinks a sex tape between her and Hester will be their ticket to easy street. Wily pastor Reverend D (Richard Romeo), the baby daddy of Hester's last child, shuns her except for quickie encounters; the neighborhood itinerant doctor (Brandon Balque), striving to do good, prescribes pills to ease the pain he can't cure; the Welfare Lady (Rene van Nifterik), who once arranged a threesome for Hester, her husband and herself, continually debases her; and Hester's first love Chilli (Zachary Lewis) appears as a phantom who brings overwhelming despair and tragedy. Hester's failed by everyone, be it government, religion, or friends and lovers. When she's teased by innocent son Jabber, the insult is the end of her. She cracks into madness...and worse.
The verdict: With her raw, sharp-edged poetry, Parks slaps you, then kisses you wildly, while Garvey smashes the hurt right in your face. You stand stunned, not knowing how to respond. This isn't life, this is potent, once-in-a-blue-moon theater.
Through September 25. The Back Porch Players, Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston Street. 800-494-8497. $15-$20.
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11:45 September 19: Editor's note: The director of In the Blood is David Rainey, and Chilli is played by Zachary Lewis. An earlier version of this article misspelled his name.