'The Bluest Eye,' Staged With Vision

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006

Let's agree here and now not to tell anyone what a fine job David Muse has done directing "The Bluest Eye," a spare and haunting little play based on Toni Morrison's first novel.

Here's my thinking: We have to keep all the smart young directors of Muse's caliber around these parts for as long as possible, and laying on the praise too thickly will only further encourage him to broaden his horizons. You might recall that Muse, who also serves as Shakespeare Theatre Company's associate director, has staged two hits of late for Studio Theatre: the whimsical "Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" and the intense "Frozen."

Now Muse, working with the smaller company Theater Alliance, turns his keen eye to this gentle treatment of Morrison's melancholy story -- about a disadvantaged young girl who imagines happiness to be only skin-deep -- and the results are again impressive.

Assisted by adapter Lydia Diamond and a dandy cast of eight, Muse sensitively conjures life in small-town Ohio of the early 1940s, as well as the harsh world encountered by Pecola Breedlove (Carleen Troy), the dark-skinned, brown-eyed girl whose dreams are tinted blond and blue.

Stage adaptations of novels are more often burdened than liberated by their pedigrees. The streamlining of literature to fit the contours of theater frequently produces something far less satisfactory than the original. It's rare that a play distills a narrative voice or compresses a plot so that the work lives as vibrantly as it did as a book.

Diamond's script, first staged in her home base of Chicago, evinces some of these problems: The characters are not drawn with much emotional weight in this 90-minute version of Morrison's 1970 novel, which decades later would gain even wider renown after the author won the Nobel Prize. The play doesn't quite prepare us in a compelling way, for instance, for the awful event in the Breedlove household that robs Pecola of both her innocence and her anchorage in reality.

Nevertheless, Diamond gives Morrison's characters enough psychological definition for us to becomes absorbed in who they are and what happens to them; they're all allowed to speak independently of the author. That is particularly true for Troy's Pecola and the actresses who portray the other children in the story: Erika Rose and Jessica Frances Dukes, playing the sisters whose family takes in Pecola for a spell, and Lia LaCour as a lighter-skinned African American girl who is loathed by some of her darker schoolmates.

The playwright also displays a delicate touch that seems right for the theme spiraling through the piece: that of the invidious influence of a white-majority nation not yet mature enough to validate beauty in all its forms.

Morrison's story is not strictly Pecola's, and neither is this the case in the play, which also examines life in the healthier home of Rose's Claudia and Dukes's Frieda, presided over by their tough-loving mother (Lynn Chavis). Pecola's house is a less forgiving environment, where the mother (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman) and father wrestle violently for primacy. Ridiculed about her looks -- the whole family is described as being particularly ugly -- Pecola retreats into the fantasy that her life will improve if she has Caucasian features and blue eyes.

The piece is suffused with references to a kind of peroxide-blond ideal of American womanhood, a standard that has one of the female characters wondering what exactly is so wonderful "about pink skin and yellow hair." There are mentions of Shirley Temple and Jean Harlow, of flaxen-haired princesses on candy wrappers, of the perfect white children in the "Dick and Jane" primers. To illustrate the intensity of Pecola's obsession, the walls have eyes: Set designer Tony Cisek chillingly fills the H Street Playhouse walls with portraits of women with the attributes that Pecola so desires.

Muse opts for a bare stage and a few props, which are used with savvy. With the change of a piece of fabric, a kitchen table becomes a coffin. The ritual of small-town gossip is performed by a trio of actresses taking choreographed sips of glasses of lemonade.

The director elicits strong work from everyone. The most affecting scene comes late, in the strange exchange between a preacher of deluded spirit, played by the excellent Alfred Kemp, and Pecola, who's persuaded, perversely, that her wish will come true via an appalling act of animal sacrifice. In Troy's doleful, hunched-shouldered performance, you can almost see the light in Pecola flickering out, one crushing event after another.

The story of this brutalized child reminds you at times of the ill-treated, physically unattractive heroine of Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple." In "The Bluest Eye," however, there's no passage from pain to redemption -- only more and more reason for grief.

The Bluest Eye, adapted by Lydia Diamond from the novel by Toni Morrison. Directed by David Muse. Lighting, John Burkland; sound, Ryan Rumery; costumes, Reggie Ray; props, Tracie Duncan; musical direction, Tracy Lynn Olivera. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 12 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 866-811-4111 or visit .

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