Hester bears a large red A on her chest. It's not the beautifully embroidered A of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Rather, it is carved into her skin, a bloody brand to remind the townspeople of what she's done. Hester is the protagonist of Suzan-Lori Parks's F**king A, which is now receiving a powerful revival at the Signature Theatre in tandem with In the Blood, Parks's other riff on Hawthorne's original novel.
While Hawthorne's Hester Prynne wears her A for the crime of adultery, Parks's Hester Smith (played with a motherly combination of vulnerability and ferocity by Christine Lahti) is an abortionist. Like her namesake, Hester is tolerated in her small, backward town for her useful trade. Rich and poor women alike seek her services, but only the town prostitute, Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango), openly befriends her. Canary dreams of marrying her best client, The Mayor (Marc Kudisch), a man she doesn't love, but who will provide her material comfort. She thinks it could work out considering how frustrated the Mayor is that his First Lady (a deviously prim yet still sympathetic Elizabeth Stanley) has been unable to produce an heir. Canary knows she doesn't have that problem.
Class and sex are intimately intertwined in this story of resentment of the barren rich and suspicion of the fertile poor. Hester performs multiple abortions every night in order to save enough money to buy freedom for her long-incarcerated son (Brandon Victor Dixon), even though his captors keep raising the price. She contends he is an angel who has served his time, but is she just deluding herself?
It certainly seems so when a clerical mix-up leads her to a lunchtime visit with a prisoner who isn't even her son, something she refuses to acknowledge until his sexual advances make it impossible to ignore. That imposter is played by Ben Horner, who impressively (and revoltingly) devours an entire picnic for two in under five minutes, masticating his food while his hawk eyes scan the horizon. Prison has led him to resemble an animal more than a man.
Director Jo Bonney elicits a believable hunger from the cast. There are the hunters (Horner, Ruibo Qian, and J. Cameron Barnett) who catch runaway fugitives for the reward money, having lost their factory jobs. They insist that they never eat what they catch, as if that somehow proves their chivalry. The amiable Raphael Nash Thompson plays the Butcher, whose daughter is locked up for a multitude of crimes, which he lists in a monologue that is as hilariously overstuffed as it is revealing: In this world, murder is as much a crime as remembering the past. All of this points to a society (one that looks like a refracted version of our own thanks to Emilio Sosa's familiar yet skewed costumes) that grows ever meaner, more violent, and less forgiving. Like Hawthorne, Parks asks if we've really progressed beyond the cruel puritan society of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Bonney gives us a sense of that judgmental, meddlesome society by having the actors lurk in the nooks and crannies of Rachel Hauck's useful two-story set and watch the stage action. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter gives them plenty of shadows in which to hide. When an actor breaks out into one of Parks's neo-Brechtian (yet surprisingly tuneful) songs, the rest of the cast accompanies on various instruments under the resourceful music direction of Todd Almond.
They sing about the irresistible necessity of work, the illusory dream of freedom, and the sweetness of revenge. Dixon sings a haunting rendition of "The Making of a Monster," a song about how "a small bit of hate in the heart will inflate" to turn anyone into a monster.
F**king A shows how economic and state violence reverberates through society and becomes a part of every individual. It shows how punitive justice with constantly moving goal posts sabotages any hope of reform. It also shows how women are usually blamed when systems that are designed to fail inevitably do.
If all of that seems very timely, you might be shocked to learn that Parks penned F**king A around the turn of the century. This excellent revival solidifies her reputation as a dramatist of uncommon foresight and great sensitivity.