In the Blood: (l to r) Cathy Simpson, Peter DeLaurier,Larry Grant Malvern, Roslyn Ruff, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen(Photo:  © Mark Gavin)
In the Blood: (l to r) Cathy Simpson, Peter DeLaurier,
Larry Grant Malvern, Roslyn Ruff, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen
(Photo: © Mark Gavin)
Demeaning the American theater is something of a parlor game among certain critics, who point to the theatrically rich cultures of Ireland, Germany, and England as proof of the United States's inferiority in this area. But that is clearly not the attitude at the People's Light & Theatre Company, which has mined the works of Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), Edward Albee (A Delicate Balance), and now Suzan-Lori Parks to present what has been, to date, the finest season of any company in the Philadelphia area. All of these plays show the consequences of a fractured community, and none does so with more heartbreaking intensity than Parks's dramatic poem In the Blood.

Living -- or, rather, barely surviving -- beneath an overpass with her five children ("my treasures," she calls them), Hester (the extraordinary Roslyn Ruff) is a strong, giving mother struggling against the stigma of homelessness. A touching, original take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter -- which also inspired Parks's Fucking A, set to premiere Off-Broadway this season at the Public Theater -- In the Blood shows a family that hasn't so much fallen between the cracks as been completely abandoned.

The key to the success of this electrifying production -- aside from nearly flawless performances in dual roles by Peter DeLaurier, Robert Beatty, Larry Grant Malvern, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, and Cathy Simpson -- is director Abigail Adams's decision to present the story from Hester's point of view, a strategy that allows for the many levels of Parks's tale to be fully realized. A mix of theatrical metaphors and gritty realism, sharply realized in Lewis Folden's grimy but snugly domestic set, the production introduces us to a family that is isolated from society. Hester is used and abused by a hypocritical reverend, a selfish care worker, a capitalistic hooker, her deadbeat father, and a well-meaning but misguided street corner doctor. She is initially seen by the audience as a mysterious outsider; but, with Adams highlighting the play's archetypal characters and situations, the divide between us begins to blur.

Pulled along by the play's harsh yet musical rhythms and the ordinariness of Hester's daily routine of washing, cooking, and caring for her children, we are astonished as the family's ramshackle home takes on a frightening familiarity. No longer an urban castaway marooned on a distant, godforsaken isle, Hester slowly becomes our neighbor, our friend, and eventually ourselves. "The ends got further apart," she tells us -- a predicament that, in today's economy, is anything but a mystery.