A few years back, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” was made into a soggy TV movie produced by Oprah Winfrey. The edges of its flamboyant language were sanded down — Suzan-Lori Parks, currently of the controversially Broadway-ized “Porgy and Bess,” was one of the writers — as the picture turned Hurston’s folklore style into a glossy magazine’s take on bodice-ripping fantasias.
Halle Berry starred.
Hurston fans can rinse out that experience with “Gleam,” which is getting an elegant but not over-sanitized treatment at Baltimore’s Center Stage. The language of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” does indeed gleam in Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner’s seldom-produced stage version, which has been around for a couple of decades as “To Gleam It Around, To Show My Shine.” (The Kennedy Center gave it a prize in the 1980s.)
“Put me down easy, Janie,” the dying old nanny says early to the story’s heroine, “Ah’m a cracked plate.” The TV version couldn’t use this sort of vividly poetic line, but Rattner’s script does happily. The tale, about Janie’s rough journey through three husbands in backwater Florida beginning at age 16, rides on a certain degree of exaggeration, just as August Wilson’s majestic cycle of plays did. Center Stage and director Marion McClinton have had solid hits with Wilson’s dramas, and they know what they’re doing here.
Visually, the production is spare but crisp as a storybook. A long, narrow boardwalk slopes toward the middle of David Gallo’s design, and tall trees draped with Spanish moss loom in the background. The few props and bits of furniture that pop onto the stage have a striking artisanal quality, from the handsome wooden bucket Janie soaks her feet in to the slightly whimsical many-drawered counter that stands for her second husband’s wildly successful general store.
Poorly done, the design could come off as Pottery Barn kitsch. Instead, it sets the stage for tall tales and heightened acting, led especially by Axel Avin Jr. and Brooks Edward Brantly. Avin plays Jody Starks, the second husband who triumphs over Eatonville (the novel’s version of the all-black town where Hurston was raised), and he’s equally compelling as the seducer who lures Janie away from her geezer first husband and as the cad who merely wants to show off the famously pretty Janie.
Brantly is a charmer as Tea Cake, the free spirit who turns out to be Janie’s deepest, truest partner. He and Christiana Clark’s Janie ease into each other wonderfully as the characters meet in Janie’s store; they have a formality that adds a lovely tension to the budding romance.
As Janie, Clark is wary and introspective: the kind of guarded, wounded soul you’d expect during 20 years of not-so-happy marriages (none of the movie’s gauzy sexual awakenings here).
Clark’s performance grows declamatory now and then, but she mainly stays in tune with the slow-burning soul of Janie’s long, adventurous trip, which puts a painful kick in the tale’s tragic climax.
McClinton’s ensemble makes the various confidantes, gossips and flirts funny and bright, so it seems right when a character declares that she feels enlarged after hearing Janie’s saga. That’s Hurston’s scale.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner. Based on Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Directed by Marion McClinton. Costumes, ESosa; lights, Michael Wangen; original music and sound design, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. With Stephanie Berry, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Erik LaRay Harvey, Tonia M. Jackson, Celeste Jones, Gavin Lawrence and Jaime Lincoln Smith. About two hours, 20 minutes. Through Feb. 5 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.