The revival of the play that defies publications to print the title, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and toughly directed by Jo Bonney, is a searing look into the sordid side of life. Think Bertolt Brecht for an idea of the author’s approach to characters and their existence. For good measure, there are some acidic songs to underscore the nastiness and irony. Think Kurt Weill, although Parks did the music and lyrics for the original numbers.
I have long admired the work of Christine Lahti and here she is at full force as Hester Smith, who performs abortions in her home, is compelled to wear the letter “A” on her to permanently mark her as an abortionist. We see her in a bloody housecoat after her day’s handiwork is done.
On the outside Hester is hard as nails, but inside she hurts for the loss of her young son to a prison sentence after he was labeled a thief by a wealthy woman from whom he stole some meat. We now meet that woman--the wife of the town mayor. A pal of Hester is Jaoquina Kalukango as Canary Mary, the paid mistress of the mayor who would like him to discard his wife and marry her. Marc Kudisch plays the mayor with unfettered arrogance and feeling the right to behave as he wishes. Elizabeth Stanley is pretty as his wife, who longs to have a child, and she has no idea of what awaits her before the play is over.
In one section Hester is duped by prison officials into thinking she is meeting her son for a picnic breakfast outside, but the prisoner turns out to be an imposter and rapes her. She does finally meet her son, known as the Monster, played dynamically by Brandon Victor Dixon, who has been on a crime spree and is hunted by men determined to kill him. Such is the situation faced by Hester when he turns up and is identifiable by the matching scars from cuts that they made on their arms before the lad went to serve his sentence. Hester has a grim decision to make.
An important character is the local butcher, impressively portrayed by Raphael Nash Thompson, who is a friend of Hester and agrees to aid her in a scheme that she concocts to wreak her fierce desire for vengeance.
Various members of the cast also play musical instruments to dispense with stark accompaniment to the singing. One element that seems superfluous and pretentious is the foreign language known as Talk that is spoken sometimes, with translations projected on a screen above the stage, although perhaps that does add somewhat to the eerie overall effect of the production, an ambiance that Bonney maintains even though there are moments that are quite funny.
This is a play that can get under your skin. You may at times wince from what you are watching, and yet the acting and the author’s bleak outlook on humanity, entwined with the theatricality, are powerful. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed September 21, 2017.