In Fucking A, flesh is inseparable from its economic value, often bearing wounds that remind its owners of past transactions: the First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley) of this unnamed town is desperate to conceive as her family’s money is no longer enough to keep her husband, the Mayor (Marc Kudisch), in her bed, but her “pussy is all dried out.” The Mayor spends more time with Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango), a prostitute he showers with fancy clothes and gold coins in return for “exclusive rights” to her body. Occasionally, she will pass one of these coins on to her friend, Hester Smith (Christine Lahti), the local abortionist whose profession requires her to be branded with a living, oozing A on her collarbone. Hester has turned “babykiller” so she can raise the money to free her own son, Boy Smith, whose decades of misconduct have increased his prison sentence despite the petty nature of his original crime: food theft sometime around age nine. In order to be sure she would recognize him again, Hester marked Boy with her teeth and gave herself a matching scar.
As with much of her other work, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A takes many of its formal cues from Brecht. There is more than a little Mother Courage to this play, which tends to alienate its audience with self-conscious winks and spontaneous if rather awkwardly executed songs. For example, there is the trio of bounty hunters who become practically orgasmic at the notion of emasculating their human prey but who turn to the audience during a little ditty to inform us, “We hunt / But we do / Not / Eat what we catch. / Thatd be a little much / Dontcha think?”
Yes, eating humans would be a little much, and the problem with this production—but not necessarily with this play—is that the emotional stakes of the action are never given the opportunity to compete with the metatheatrical drapery: casual discussions of this kind should produce some reaction, no? Instead they merely underline the barbarity onstage in a distant and academic manner. (We can laugh guiltlessly at this song because it does not seem to have any connection to real violence.)
Thus, Mr. Kudisch is hysterical as the Mayor, puffing up his chest and bellowing about his “little army” of sperm, but Ms. Lahti comes up short when it is her turn to offer a foil to the gallows humor, an emotional entry-point which will bring both aspects of the drama into sharper relief. Waif-like, with grizzled hands and a granite-hard expression, she certainly looks the part. But she never manages to offer us a glimpse into Hester’s interior life, into the pain that her hard-as-nails demeanor obscures. By the end of the Fucking A, when she finds herself in tragic circumstances unrivaled outside of Greek tragedy, the cumulative effect, both of her performance and of Jo Bonney’s scalpel-cold direction, left me feeling a little hollow.