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Pretty is as pretty does, our mothers used to tell us, but in The Bluest Eye pretty says what ugly was: Toni Morrison’s celebrated debut novel tells tales of cruelty and humiliation, rape and madness, all in language as aching and lovely as any sonnet, and there’s a thrumming tension between the gorgeous prose and the griefs it offers up liturgically. Not so, unfortunately, in Theater Alliance’s exquisitely restrained staging, the East Coast debut of Lydia Diamond’s lean and lyrical adaptation. The just poetry of the language remains, along with the startling humanity that attends even the worst among Morrison’s offenders, and there’s great beauty in David Muse’s graceful production. But the outrages, somehow, the profound sorrows and the tragedies visited by one generation upon the next—they seem too attractively framed for their collective weight to oppress the spirit, too delicately handled for their inevitabilities to bruise the heart.
Oh, what a weakness for a show to have, though. There’s an immense dignity to The Bluest Eye, a deep and resonant note of charity in its chronicle of an 11-year-old’s crippling self-hatred—borne of her parents’ violent marriage and of society’s insistence that her blackness can’t possibly be beautiful—and there’s no mistaking that Muse, the bright young director who’s turned heads locally with a ferociously lucid Frozen and a drum-tight, laugh-out-loud The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, has come at Morrison’s story thoughtfully and with care. His pains are evident in everything from intricate choral passages (the ensemble, in a nod to the book’s chapter headings, speaks passages from Dick and Jane primers) to the ineffable rightness of the choice he makes at the play’s darkest, most appalling moment (when a brutalized man brutalizes the daughter he despises, pities, and loves), and he extracts sensitive performances from a cast whose members seem remarkably in sync.
Ryan Rumery’s sound design proves expressive, enlisting effects from ghostly music boxes to barking dogs without ever seeming intrusive; there’s wit in Tony Cisek’s set, a bare, rectangular expanse flanked by two mural-sized fashion-plate collages whose women all have the plush lips and sleepy eyes of Tamara de Lempicka’s models; John Burkland’s lighting creates its own spaces for two of the play’s most hushed and breathless moments, and Reggie Ray’s costumes display a subdued eloquence that speaks volumes about the stratifications in even this story’s intimate little society. And yet…
Perhaps it’s simply the tastefulness of it all, the poise and the unswerving self-possession that make the whole business seem a trifle too contained. Perhaps that accounts for the faint whiff of staginess that attends those choral moments after a while—most noticeably the one involving the gossiping ladies and their lemonades, once the story of poor Pecola Breedlove (Carleen Troy) and the nature of her very public shame is well-advanced. Or perhaps, though it seems unkind to suggest it, the missing element has to do with Muse’s casting of that central part: The otherwise appealing Troy captures the character’s innocence, to be sure, and the passivity that makes Pecola such easy prey, but there’s something circumscribed about the portrayal, a limited emotional range that robs Morrison’s tragic heroine of her necessary mystery.
Erika Rose and Jessica Frances Dukes, by contrast, find the balance Diamond was presumably looking for as she worked to capture the blend of adult perspective and childlike artlessness that informs their characters’ voices in Morrison’s story. Rose plays Claudia, the younger of the two sisters Pecola comes to stay with after one of her parents’ more disastrous domestic brawls, and it’s Claudia who carries most of the narrative burden in this version. Rose shoulders that burden easily, delivering the facts and the metaphysics, too, with a collected air that makes the play’s repeated voice-over segues seem less artificial than they might. Dukes is amusing and confident, a fine foil; Lynn Chavis, as their bustling, no-nonsense mother, understands how to wrap maternal warmth in brusque efficiency.
Lia LaCour doubles sensitively and without condescension as the light-skinned Maureen and the white girl, embodiments of the beauty myth that causes such trouble among both generations; Alfred Kemp adds a shiver of focused strangeness as Soaphead Church, the twisted neighborhood spiritualist who offers Pecola a sad kind of salvation in the story’s final chapter.
And as the warring, wounded Breedloves, Aakhu Freeman and Jeorge Watson are simply superb: These are raw, honest, humane portrayals of damaged people doing damage to each other and their child, not out of malice but out of despair—and out of the sense that they themselves have so little value that their actions, hurtful or helpful, can’t possibly matter much. Their work is feather-edged, fine-grained, and the more powerful for it.
There is, possibly, a structural issue that militates against the catharsis audiences will want to feel: The play arcs around Pecola’s violation, then detours for perhaps a little too long into a sequence involving Soaphead Church and his idiosyncrasies. (They’re involved in Pecola’s ultimate fate but not crucial to it—though of course the man himself is.) The result is a sense of lost momentum roughly four-fifths of the way through a show that’s only 90 minutes long—which means that when Pecola’s story wraps itself up, in a sequence that’s presumably meant to be chilling, the audience isn’t quite prepared to surrender.
That sequence is stylishly realized, though, like everything about this production: It’s staged simply, played with clarity and conviction, and supported with deft design. It’s just not the heartbreaker it ought to be—which is doubtless a little heartbreaking for all concerned. CP