New Haven Advocate: The Bluest Eye

Theater: The Bluest Eye review

by Christopher Arnott

I've seen The Bluest Eye twice now; at Hartford Stage on the last Thursday of its run there, then two weeks later on the first Thursday of its run at the Long Wharf. Any critic who thinks that a co-production can be properly assessed without seeing it in every theater it plays doesn't know their job. It's invigorating to see how a production can change due to the slightest changes in its host, and especially due to the settled subscription audiences at varying theaters, even ones in the same state.

Admitting to a bias, and feeling much more comfortable at the Long Wharf than I do at Hartford Stage I prefer The Bluest Eye as it looks now. I felt an eerie distance from the scaffolding-and-bedsheets set in Hartford, like I was standing outside an aquarium watching the teeming humanity within. A few fewer inches in the Long Wharf mainstage thrust, a slightly less raked auditorium, and less ostentatious lighting make all the difference. It feels like a more intimate experience here, more shadowy and mysterious, more moving.

Lydia Diamond's adaptation of Toni Morrison's debut novel takes no chances, comprehension-wise. In some ways, it's clearer than the novel in explaining motivations and plot points. Director Eric Ting's talent here is in making sure the play visually mirrors the spiritualized, abstract excitement of Morrison's prose. He does this with a variety of magical means, from adept multiple casting (Shelley Thomas, for one, realistically plays both African-American and Caucasian characters) to playing the scenes on different levels of a jagged, layered stage to using grown women to portray young vulnerable children. As in recent plays like Eurydice and The Evildoers (both at Yale Rep) there's a grand special effect to look forward to near the play's end, one which packs beauty, horror and a powerful metaphor. There's a transparency to the production, in a good way: translucent screens, a modicum of make-up and costumes on the actors. Even the regular use of water imagery screams clarity and purity. More opaque fluids which could easily come into play, like blood and blueberry pie filling, are wisely left to the imagination, but the water--tossed on a sleeping man to wake him, splashed about by kids in a center-stage puddle--is real.

Short twists of modern dance frame the play, seeming both childlike, mature, human and other-worldly. But mostly the actors just act, strongly and sharply, making sure you understand what's going on. As ensembles go, this is a curious one--individual performances are freely allowed to clash. Volume, pacing and physicality can differ wildly between performers in a single scene. Sometimes such lack of common ground kills a play; here it works, because while there are numerous strong roles and narrative voices in the piece, a single character is at the center of it--Pecola, a young girl with a severe self-image problem that has been formed by the diversely portrayed yet equally demonic people around her. Ting's production, and his far-ranging ensemble, show that Pecola has nowhere to hide. There are no easy stereotypes; the sweeter, quieter folks can be hostile, and the loudest-mouthed ones have their sympathetic moments. There's an honesty here about how we expect people who look a certain way to act a certain way. This is especially true in the shorthand-psychological world of the American theater, but no less true of life in general. The Bluest Eye is a show about the ravages of racism and how even small tightknit communities and families are undone by phony ideals embedded in consciousness by society and the media.

In a propulsive 90 minutes without intermission, The Bluest Eye takes on a lot: a major early work by one of the most important American novelists of the 20th century and all the major universal issues it floats. It also has things to say about how we prepare and perceive theater. Having been able to see it twice, with different audiences at different established regional theaters 50 miles from each other, has shown me how subtly yet drastically such work can resonate. A lot of productions (including previous Long Wharf/Hartford Stage ones) may have deserved the longer runs because of some superficial charm and popularity, but this one deeply deserves to be visited by as many different people as possible.