Blood Toil: Nelson gets her hands dirty as Hester.

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As staged at Studio, Suzan-Lori Parks’ astringent, ambitious take on abortion and revenge is missing something important at its heart—and it ain’t blood. There are buckets of the stuff in Studio’s production, oozing from wounds, splattered on faces, smeared across aprons. Neither does the show lack for whores, corruption (both spiritual and municipal), murder, rape, or peppy little Brecht/Weill–inflected ditties about sperm, butchery, and mother-love.

And it’s certainly not missing a grimly satisfying visual style—Studio’s design team has seen to that. Giorgios Tsappas’s iron cages and gunmetal-gray sliding doors rise from Justin Thomas’s vast shadowy murk, where a row of operating tables stands like a seawall and the yellowing antiseptic tiles of an abortionist’s examination room look, if anything, pro-septic.

No, what’s missing is urgency, that sense of inescapable momentum that should send us hurtling toward the doom that awaits Parks’ characters. In its absence, Fucking A evinces the aimlessness of an expansive, if unusually caustic, shaggy-dog story.

Which is a shame, because beneath all its impressive trappings—the songs, the gimlet-eyed feminist sensibility, Mark Toorock’s parkour choreography that hurls performers against walls and across empty space—the show’s an old-fashioned revenge melodrama. And when melodrama gets this mellow, its drama deflates.

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Fucking A represents the second time Parks has keyed off The Scarlet Letter (1999’s In the Blood navigated these same conceptual waters), and once again she isn’t so much interested in finding strict parallels to Hawthorne as she is in coming at this staple of seventh-grade reading lists from her own oblique angle.

Here, the setting is an urban dystopia, Hester (Jennifer L. Nelson) a world-weary abortionist, and that scarlet, titular letter a brand burned in Hester’s skin to mark her as a baby-killer. She ministers to whores, and to the dallying wife of the town’s bluff, misogynistic mayor (an underused Craig Wallace), in the vain hope of earning enough money to pay her son’s way out of jail, where he has languished for 30 years.

We’re told that it was the mayor’s wife (Jjana Valentiner) who sent Hester’s son to prison, years ago, and it’s Hester’s keening hatred of the woman that is meant to set this dramaturgical roller coaster in motion. But because Parks’s script takes Hester’s antipathy as read, it’s up to co-directors Keith Alan Baker and Rahaleh Nassri to manifest that mixture of dread and delight we feel as the carny lowers the coaster’s restraining bar and it clicks into place: No turning back now.

But Nelson finds her rage too early and often, holds it too tightly and asserts it too flatly for us to be able to share it with her. It’s a complicated role—part Medea, part Mother Courage, part Sweeney Todd—and if Nelson seems to struggle with the alchemical formula, she’s not helped by the crowd of half-formed ideas dutifully served up, without comment, by Baker and Nassri.

We keep coming up against story elements that seem, in this production, like placeholders in need of a fuller imagining: We learn that Hester’s scar begins to weep and smell when customers are on their way; we hear the lilting vowels of an argot called “TALK” spoken only by women; we briefly meet a drunken character named Scribe who seems to represent the fecklessness of art, or language, or journalism, or something.

If Fucking A moved faster and more inexorably to its conclusion, such aspects would help create a richer, more realized world. In this production, however, they only steal focus from a staging that’s already lacking it; the result’s an attractive but indecipherable blur.