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Theater review: Suzan-Lori Parks’ ‘Red Letter Plays’

Christine Lahti displays a branded A on her

Christine Lahti displays a branded A on her chest in Suzan-Lori Parks' riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “The Red Letter Plays”

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $30, 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org.

BOTTOM LINE Suzan-Lori Parks delivers powerful riffs on “The Scarlet Letter.”

The idea to riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” came to Suzan-Lori Parks out of the blue in 1997 while she was paddling a canoe, as did the profane title not suitable for this publication.

The play itself, though, went through many drafts, she explains in an author’s note, to the point that she eventually went in another direction with the idea. A second play, “In the Blood,” came to her quickly. Only then, she writes, did the original play become “easy to write.” Now, nearly 20 years later, the powerful pieces, together called “The Red Letter Plays,” are being performed as part of Parks’ yearlong residency at the Signature Theatre. The connection to Hawthorne is subtle, resting mostly on the ideas of class distinction and human suffering — and a central character named Hester.

Hester, La Negrita, played with a driving force by Saycon Sengbloh, is the mother of five illegitimate children, each with a different father, in “In the Blood,” directed by Sarah Benson. Homeless and uneducated, this Hester fights to improve her lot by learning to read, though she can’t manage to get beyond the “A” she is constantly struggling to write. The five other actors play dual roles, doubling as her children, sliding and sparring with abandon on Louisa Thompson’s curved set (think inner city skateboard park), and the adults who have contributed to Hester’s woefully desolate situation. A better life seems momentarily within her grasp, and when that hope is dashed, there’s unspeakable tragedy.

The play with the unprintable title, directed by Jo Bonney, is the story of Hester Smith, and the scarlet A branded on her chest stands for abortionist. In a nameless town that could be anywhere, Hester, played with a potent mix of strength and vulnerability by Christine Lahti, has but one goal — to earn enough money to get her son (Brandon Victor Dixon, fresh from “Hamilton”) out of prison. Or at least to get him sprung long enough for a picnic lunch. It all gets messy — and we’re not just taking about the copious amounts of stage blood — as said son doesn’t turn out to be quite the “good boy” she has come to idolize over the years. Again, unspeakable tragedy.

Parks describes these works as “sister plays,” but really they’re about mothers, and the choices — sometimes excruciatingly terrible choices — they must make to protect their children from all that life throws at them. Any mother will relate.

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