At one point in "The Sky Is Gray," Olivia Cole is propositioned by a pimp, knocks him down and pulls a knife on him.It is almost the only moment of personal conflict in the low-keyed texture of the adaptation of Ernest Gaines' short story, to be shown tonight on WETA-TV (9 p.m., Channel 26). But the story is full of struggle and pain, sharp, pointed objects and muted violence, all intensified because they are seen through the eyes of a young black boy who is just beginning to learn about the world.
The plot seems simple: The time is the early 1940s, and Octavia (Cole) has been left to care for her family while her sharecropper husband is in the army. Her son, James, develops a toothache, and the mother and son have to go into a small Louisiana town to the dentist. All that happens on the trip is that the boy begins to become a man.
There seems little connection among the incidents that make up the story's texture, except that they involve so many kinds of conflict: James' reluctance to kill two quail he has trapped to expand the family's meager food supply; an argument between a minister and an atheist in the dentist's waiting room; a constant struggle against cold, windy weather, the polite maneuvering of an old white lady who sees that the mother and son are hungry and contrives to find a way to feed them without seeming to force charity on them. But everything works to reinforce the theme -- even the muted violence of a short scene in which the mother and son are cutting sugar cane in their fields.
Well cast and very thoughtfully directed, the play draws outstanding performances from Cole and from James Bond III as her son. Its theme is not an easy one to translate to the screen, but in this production it comes across most effectively.