In her often-searing 2000 play, “F***ing A,” now being revived by the Signature Theatre Company, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks weaves elements of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” the plays of Bertolt Brecht (especially “Mother Courage and Her Children”) and her own unique voice together to examine the mistreatment of women, minorities and all those who are oppressed by a more fortunate society.
At the same time, Parks manages to create an involving if sometimes horrific story, where the show’s seemingly disparate characters interact in many, sometimes surprising ways. It’s a tall order, but Jo Bonney’s exceedingly well-cast, atmospheric production fulfills many of the work’s demands. Set “anytime in a small town in the middle of a small country” – immediately giving the play an air of universality – the work’s fulcrum is Hester Smith (an alternately fierce yet vulnerable Christine Lahti), a former maid who has been forced to take on the reviled role of the town’s abortionist – and branded with that red “A” – rather than go to jail, a fate that befell her son 30 years ago when both were accused of committing a small crime against her employer’s family.
Acknowledging the town’s contempt for her, Hester nonetheless focuses on the money she earns by her services, which she hopes to use buy her son’s freedom. Sadly, “Boy” (played by the former “Hamilton” star Brandon Victor Dixon) -- whom Hester still envisions as an angelic soul -- has already found freedom. He’s escaped the prison after committing decades of horrible crimes, thereby earning the nickname “Monster.” Needless to say, their mother-and-child reunion, long delayed, will not be the one Hester envisions.
As she soldiers on, Hester has two main allies in her life: her best friend, Canary Mary (the utterly beguiling Joaquina Kalukango), a prostitute who is romantically involved with The Mayor (a perfectly pompous Marc Kudisch), and Butcher (an extremely endearing Raphael Nash Thompson, who earns a deserved mid-show ovation for nailing a particularly difficult speech), a good-hearted soul in love with Hester. But like Hester, Mary is devoted to an impossible dream; while The Mayor plans to murder his barren, rich wife (a nicely sympathetic Elizabeth Stanley) – who is responsible for Hester and Boy’s plight – he has no intention of marrying a whore. And as both women eventually prove, downtrodden as they are, hell still has little fury as a woman wronged.
What makes the work even more unusual is that Parks’ otherwise straightforward narrative is interrupted by small sections where the women speak in their own language, known as Talk (cleverly subtitled on the walls of Rachel Hauck’s set), and, more often, by Brechtian-style songs written by Parks that express the characters’ inner feelings.
Wisely, Bonney seems to have cast the show (which also features the very good Ben Horner, Rubio Quan, and J. Cameron Barnett in a variety of roles) not just for the performers’ acting abilities, but their musical ones: all are excellent singers (even Lahti has a decent singing voice) and many are first-rate musicians, asked to play instruments a la John Doyle. (The excellent musical direction is by the talented Todd Almond.) The cast’s musicality proves to be an invaluable asset.
It must also be noted that casting a Caucasian woman as Hester (who was played by the dazzling African-American actress S. Epatha Merkerson in the show’s 2003 New York premiere) allows a previous viewer of the play to see it from a different perspective. Admittedly, at times, the work does feel predictable, and a little trimming might be useful. Nonetheless, you will leave the theatre marked by the plight of these characters.
Editor’s note: “F**ing A” is being presented as part of “The Red Letter Plays” in repertory with Parks’ “In the Blood.”
By Brian Scott Lipton
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