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“My five treasures,” murmurs Hester as she gathers her squirming children to her bosom in Suzan-Lori Parks’ social satire In the Blood. The kids burble with pleasure as she hugs them, melting into the warm security of her embrace before heading off to sleep on a broken concrete floor. Life may not be easy when you live under a bridge, but in Hester’s family, it’s at least filled with love.

Though each of this urban Mother Courage’s kids has a different deadbeat dad and she’s been reduced to skimming trash cans to feed them all, Hester (Gail Grate) remains an optimist. “All I need’s a leg up,” she keeps saying. “Get my leg up, I’ll be OK.”

And well she might, if only the deck weren’t so stacked against black, unemployed, illiterate, homeless mothers of five. Hester’s doing her best to learn to write—she’s mastered the letter A—and can be plenty resourceful when it comes to survival in the urban wilderness. She’s figured out how to borrow power for her electric hot plate by using jumper cables and has stacked some discarded bureau drawers into a perfectly serviceable kitchen table.

But without marketable skills, or anything of value except her body to sell, she’s in a tough spot. Her bisexual girlfriend, Gringa, keeps urging her to co-star in Gringa’s porn flicks, but Hester nurtures the dream that the soapbox preacher who fathered her youngest son will give her a few bucks from his collection plate. Or that the father of her firstborn will come back to sweep her off her feet, as he promised he would long ago. In the meantime, she survives on whatever she can scrounge from the streets. Her kids aren’t unhappy, but she’s near the end of her rope when we meet her—and is about to suffer a series of authorial blows.

Parks has said that she wrote In the Blood as a contemporary response to The Scarlet Letter, and it’s easy to see bits of the novel’s Hester Prynne in the play’s Hester. Both are social outcasts, and, although religion plays a smaller role in the play than it does in the novel, there are certainly parallels between the repulsion that Puritan society felt for adultery and the disdain contemporary society feels for welfare moms.

But once the production acknowledges that central conceit—the word “slut” is scrawled on the wall of Anne Gibson’s persuasively grungy setting, later to be replaced with a bloody A—the play can only illustrate its heroine’s pariah status over and over as it lurches toward tragedy. So, Gringa robs from Hester, the soapbox preacher demands fellatio (“suffering is an enormous turn-on”) in return for a handout, a pill-pushing roadside doctor suggests that Hester get her tubes tied, and her snotty welfare caseworker provides her with needle and satin for a little under-the-counter piecework. All of which is nothing compared to the rejection that awaits Hester when her one true love comes back into her life.

Tom Prewitt’s staging doesn’t have a particularly light touch in laying out Hester’s journey of disillusionment, but then, neither does Parks’ script. The author provides each of the adults in Hester’s life with an explanatory soliloquy—the caseworker’s begins “I walk the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’”—and, although the speeches are evocatively phrased, they’re didactic and unnecessary. As if that weren’t distancing enough, Parks also requires the actors playing Hester’s tormentors to double as Hester’s kids—a device that saddles the show with more adult flouncing and baby talk than any evening should have to support.

Prewitt and his cast have been clever about coming up with illustrative stage business, but they haven’t found a way to make the performances simultaneously artificial and affecting. After a while, the scene-soliloquy-scene structure becomes annoyingly predictable, and the author’s way with words—which verges on poetry often enough to explain how In the Blood ranked as a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer—isn’t enough to sustain the evening.

In short, it’s not the perfect introduction to Woolly Mammoth’s uncharacteristically classy new digs at the Kennedy Center. On the other hand, the subject matter and manner of presentation should quash any worries that the troupe, which has always sought to chip away at social and political façades, and made a virtue of its own institutional scruffiness, is abandoning its roots. Gibson’s faux-industrial setting, with its exposed cables and vents, is realistic enough that audiences may well assume they’re just looking at the AFI Theater’s exposed structure, previously hidden by the movie screen.

In that context, it’s intriguing that the troupe should have arrived while renovations are ongoing in the KenCen’s main hall. For the first time in 25 years, the cinder blocks propping up the building’s marble façade have been exposed. Just a coincidence of timing, of course…but a happy one for those of us who like to grasp at symbols.

Given that Gypsy—another tale of a mom who’s damaged goods—is among the most familiar musicals in the Sondheim canon, and that Signature Theatre was going to have to do it sooner or later, it’s probably all to the good that director-choreographer Baayork Lee has tried to conceptualize it a little. The tricks she and her designers have come up with mostly fall flat, but at least the show doesn’t look like a dinner-theater production.

Lou Stancari has outfitted the stage with a pair of shabby, weather-beaten wooden shacks rather than the showbizzy accouterments Gypsy fans will expect in a tale about the rise to stardom of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and the fall from grace of her overbearing, stage-managing mother. The shack on the right is a rural train station, and sound designer Brian Keating greets audiences with a layered mix of squealing wheels and steam whooshes, before a ballet accompanying the overture introduces a strutting assortment of drably attired Depression-era characters. One of those characters opens a satchel full of profession-identifying hats and quickly establishes his role as a burlesque comic who will play multiple roles. The others fall into two groups: down-and-outers and show-business types.

The effect is sort of The Grapes of Gypsy, but it at least suggests that the director has thought about ways of reinventing a show with tunes so familiar (“Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming up Roses”) that much of the audience will be able to sing them right along with the characters. None of the devices add much to the story, and they’re so visually distracting once Mama Rose bullies her reluctant daughters into the limelight that the director eventually has to draw white curtains across the stage to hide the setting entirely. Still, credit Lee with trying.

Credit the players, too. Anyone who’s seen Donna Migliaccio in her previous Signature roles has to have been looking forward to her portrayal of Mama Rose. She practically channels Ethel Merman when she sings, and she certainly has the acting chops to put across the book scenes. At the preview I caught, she and music director Jon Kalbfleisch seemed still to be negotiating tempos for some of her numbers, but she’s a sturdy Rose, if not a particularly shattering one.

Deanna Harris, whose local parts with some of the city’s tiniest theaters haven’t remotely prepared audiences for her Broadway-ready performance as the title character, is sweet and engaging as well as full-voiced. The one misstep she makes is a too-quick leap from being terrified of stripping to being a pro in a lengthy musical number that would be more effective if we could watch her grow gradually. Lawrence Redmond is affecting as the romantic interest who gets steamrollered by Mama Rose, and Sherri L. Edelen is fun in a pair of supporting parts that show off her ability to give almost any line a sarcastic spin.

Much of the rest of the cast, however, is merely adequate. And it does not help that, after those striking initial moments of dance during the overture, Lee’s staging ranges only slightly upward from routine. The vaudeville scenes are a particular disappointment, with the director getting barely any comic mileage from the repetitive act Rose keeps staging and restaging for her daughters.

Gypsy still has, of course, a terrific, hit-packed score by Jule Styne, precociously clever lyrics by a then-in-his-20s Stephen Sondheim, and a libretto by Arthur Laurents that is arguably the best ever written for a traditional musical. So a competent production—and Signature’s production is certainly competent—is bound to offer certain pleasures. But if you’re planning to go, you’d be wise to temper expectations a bit. CP