Adapted from Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, “The Bluest Eye” depicts the psychological effects of prejudice on a race of children conditioned to accept the fact that they cannot be beautiful because they don’t have blue eyes and blond hair like Shirley Temple. Visiting New York for only 12 performances, this thought-provoking play is offered in a highly inventive production with a group of fine actors.
Pecola (Alana Arenas) is a preteen living in a “relentlessly and aggressively ugly” family. (“Not ugly so much as they were just poor and black and believed they were ugly.”) When her parents, in a drunken fight, burn down the house, Pecola goes to stay with an equally poor but loving family. The two daughters of the house, Claudia and Freida, gladly take her in.
Trouble comes when Pecola starts “ministratin’.” Once she has returned home, her abusive and alcoholic father rapes her, followed by a beating from her mother. The pregnant Pecola ultimately loses her baby, by which time she has crossed the line into madness, fixating on a mirror that displays what she believes to be her magically altered “truly bluely eyes.”
This all plays out in story theater fashion, with Claudia (Libya V. Pugh) as guide and narrator. Claudia’s is a strong and knowing voice; she even explains how she took her Shirley Temple doll and dismembered it: “If I could rip it apart, maybe I’d understand what the world thought was so wonderful about pink skin and yellow hair.”
If Arenas is heartbreaking as the shy and awkward Pecola, Pugh is the center of the play, delivering Morrison’s message in a convincing and uncompromising manner.
The entire eight-person cast is very much in gear, with everyone (other than Arenas and Pugh) doing seamless doubling. James Vincent Meredith is especially good as the conjurer Soaphead Church.
Morrison’s amazing imagery is evident throughout. Adapter Lydia Diamond has necessarily reworked the material to suit the stage, but she retains the essence of the original. This chore was a difficult one, as the novel is short on action; the plot is disclosed in the first pages, with Morrison concentrating thereafter not on what but why. (Morrison even manages to make the brutal father a human and pitiable character.) A Chicago playwright commissioned by Steppenwolf to write the adaptation, Diamond captures the flavor of Morrison’s storytelling while retaining many of the big scenes.
Director Hallie Gordon deserves equal credit; play is so well assembled, and so well staged, that the three creators — Morrison, Diamond and Gordon — seem always to be on the same page.
“The Bluest Eye” was first produced in 2005 by the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program. Though highly acclaimed, the limited run was mostly pre-sold to high school students and thus not widely viewed.
Steppenwolf remounted it last month, with most of the original cast and the addition of a more fully realized physical production. Stephanie Nelson’s set features a red picturebook house straight out of “Dick and Jane.” (Pecola periodically reads from the book, which told of perfect children in a perfect world.) The three designers work especially well with Gordon, allowing everything to flow nicely through its 90 minutes.
Worth noting is the especially high caliber of the creators and cast, all of whom seem to be Chi-based with virtually no New York experience. This “Bluest Eye” troupe is mighty impressive and most welcome.
While devised for young adults, play is perfectly suitable for older audiences. Not for younger teens, though; one girl, who looked to be about 14, was physically cowering during the rape scene and clutching her mother. Assault is extremely powerful, though artfully staged with no physical activity.
Play contains several stunning moments, including a scene in which the father — as a teenager — is forced to have sex by a couple of white men with guns. Most wrenching, perhaps, is a scene in which Pecola’s cruel, inhumane mother tenderly comforts the daughter of the rich white family she works for, picking up the blond, blue-eyed child and lovingly hugging her in a manner that shocks the unbelieving Pecola and the audience as well.