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CSU's In The Blood explores the plight of the poor

Living under a Bridge IS A crummy way to exist, but it serves as an excellent metaphor for how poor people are treated in this country. While those with means go whistling by, untroubled by the unpleasant sights below, the destitute family in Suzan-Lori Park's In The Blood scrounges for survival.

This taut production by the Cleveland State University dramatic arts program powerfully delivers the not-so-subtle message in the script. And thanks to a few standout performances by this undergraduate cast, dark humor blends with the black void of hopelessness to create a compelling experience. 

In this re-imagining of The Scarlet Letter (the sin here, instead of adultery, is being homeless), Hester La Negrita is an African-American woman with five kids born out of wedlock. But these children are out of pretty much everything, as they collect empty cans and gulp down fantasy soup that their mother provides. 

Each of the actors portraying the children is double cast: two as their own absent father, a lowlife who's a friend of Hester in name only, and a couple members of the supposedly supportive society that actually keeps Hester pinned to her despair. 

Alternating dialogue scenes with rationalizing monologues by each of the adult characters, the playwright leaves no doubt about the rage she feels for the plight of the vulnerable poor. While there is stark truth in many of these reflections, some are almost too predictable. 

Reverend D is one of the baby daddies, but he's too busy building his new church to help Hester, although he does coax her into favoring him with a quick blowjob. Lawrence Charles Farmer has a nicely oleaginous rap as the rev, and infantilizes himself without overdoing it as the youngest offspring, Baby.  

Also excellent is Tasheanna Martin, who lights up the stage as both daughter Bully and the Welfare Lady. When this bureaucrat tells Hester, "I care because it's my job," the chill is palpable. 

As Chili, Hester's first hook-up, Isaiah Isaac is charming, if a bit stilted. But he nails his role as oldest child Jabber, who is teaching his illiterate mother how to make the letter "A." This is Parks' sneaky way of morphing Hester Prynne's letter of shame into a letter of aspiration. Jim Fallada is suitably sleazy as a curbside doctor who also took liberties with Hester.  Only Hester's friend Amiga (Stephanie Wilbert) seems to lack a clearly defining persona. 

Tying it all together is Elisa Hanna, who is pitch-perfect as Hester: struggling gamely, giving in to temptation and weakness, and dealing with crushing conflicts. For instance, she calls her five kids her treasures, then says she shouldn't have had any, then says she should have had a hundred. 

Director Holly Holsinger draws honest emotions out of her young cast. She keeps the pacing tight on an arresting set, designed by Don McBride, that itself is sort of a stylized "A."  

All in all, In the Blood is a dark but vital portrait of our society's underbelly, a vast collection of people who are all too easy to forget or dismiss.

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