Natasha Charles pumps life into the Unicorn's latest production.

Blood Relations 

Natasha Charles pumps life into the Unicorn's latest production.

The first striking thing about the Unicorn's production of Suzan-Lori Parks' In the Blood is how the set spills from wall to wall and then some. Set designer Atif Rome's makeshift home beneath a rusted-out bridge is flecked with graffiti and grime and scattered with the detritus of people's lives. Cats, which was set in a junkyard, looked similar but a lot glossier; it was an amusement park, after all, and this is hell on earth.

But the last thing that leaves a wallop -- and carries you into the night -- is the luminous performance of Natasha Charles, who plays a mother of five who has made this spot of earth her own. Charles is a second-year graduate student in UMKC's theater department, but from the breadth of her work, you'd never suspect she's still doing homework. And her physical stature -- lithe and fierce like a lioness -- matches her theatrical stature in a play that might not work without her.

Charles' character is named Hester, and the allusion to The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne is no mistake. She is illiterate but working on it -- even if she's mastered only the A. Her children were fathered by a quintet of guys who are no longer around. Even the neighborhood minister (Robert Arsante), the corner prostitute (Andi Meyer) and the welfare worker (Carla Davenport) have dismissed her -- except for the sexual favors she provides.

Hester is bisexual, black, homeless and unschooled -- the perfect antiheroine when the newspapers report that homelessness in Missouri has grown by a sobering 42 percent. She's the poster child of the new administration.

Wearing Georgianna Londre's thoughtfully detailed costumes, the actors (who also include Jamaly Allen and Damron Russel Armstrong) are mouthpieces for Parks' agenda. The play is almost Eastern European in its banner-waving politics. It's about the voices of the underground finally getting a bullhorn, and Parks' writing holds your head like a vice and clips open your eyelids like the deprogramming equipment in A Clockwork Orange.

One problem codirectors Cynthia Levin and Martin Chislom can't really avoid is how the cast members other than Charles are called upon to also play Hester's children. Adults' playing characters from ages two to thirteen is a challenge that would confound even Judi Dench. Though the kids' names are colorful -- Jabber, Baby, Bully, Trouble and Beauty -- they are portrayed as if they'd been edited out of a scene from I Am Sam. Thankfully these childhoods are brief and the players do better by their other roles.

The work of lighting designer Jeffrey Cady and sound designer Glen Dunzweiler is also critical. Cady is adept at lighting the kind of images we're used to turning away from. At a tragic point near the end, he flushes the stage with the red of the play's title. Dunzweiler has created a never-ending loop of traffic sounds and sirens that hums in the background through the whole show. The characters, like people who live near airports, are immune to it, but it's our constant reminder that a home is not a house.

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