Different play, same problem.
In the Blood, the second of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Red Letters Plays to receive a revival at the Signature this season, has an exquisite set: most of it consists of a large ramp facing the audience and flanked on one side by a tube that occasionally regurgitates trash. Hester (Jocelyn Bioh) lives here with her five children by five different fathers, who rely on the ramp for entertainment—they toss toys at it, run up it, and use it as a slide, all with an air of restless boredom. Their bedrooms are under the stage, which is itself under a train whose passing sounds periodically punctuate the action.
In other words: it looks great. And there are some nice, smaller touches, too. For example, when Hester’s social worker (Saycon Sengbloh) visits the dump, she appears in plastic-wrapped pink high heels. But like Fucking A before it, the emotional wallop in the text never materializes onstage. Hester, who is always willing to sacrifice for her children, frequently mentions stomach pains from hunger. However, Ms. Bioh only seems to remember these pains when she is reminded by Hester’s lines—she gamely grabs at her stomach as the script calls for it, but otherwise walks around physically unaffected by her circumstances. Bodies in pain do not turn on and off quite as she suggests.
Of course, Ms. Parks is working in the tradition of Brecht, which has a tendency toward flat execution. But I have always felt that eliciting empathy from the audience highlights and focuses metatheatrical alienation rather than distracting from it: cold derives its meaning from heat, distance from closeness. Here, we only see Hester from very far away, we only hear her in monotone. When the curtain falls, she is covered in the blood of her favorite child. I felt nothing.