Even in today’s America, where a black man stands at the portal to the presidency, the cultural power we accord blond hair and blue eyes is astonishing. So who can fail to be moved by little Pecola Breedlove, a black child in 1940s Lorain, Ohio, who fervently believes that her loveless existence will be transformed if only — and only if — she can acquire a pair of blue, blue eyes?
Her longing, and the stunted world that gives birth to it, are at the heart of Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” now adapted to the stage by Lydia Diamond. Bowing deeply to the poetry of Ms. Morrison’s language, Ms. Diamond scoops out huge chunks of it for her play. And that is both its glory and its burden. In this lovingly mounted co-production from Hartford Stage and Long Wharf Theater, the book comes affectingly to life — but it never becomes more than a book. It never quite makes the jump into flesh-and-blood theater.
It’s not for want of trying. “The Bluest Eye,” which opened in Hartford and moves to New Haven on March 28, distills Ms. Morrison’s richly textured account of Pecola’s story into 14 pointed scenes punctuated here and there with snippets of song. The play’s increasingly unsettling events unfold across Scott Bradley’s kaleidoscope of a set over the course of some 90 minutes, uninterrupted by the breathing space of an intermission. In that brief time, eight actors, under the direction of Eric Ting, deftly sketch a vivid picture of a community shaped, and often scarred, by the casual racism of the dominant culture. We meet Pecola’s angry mother and troubled father, who have absorbed the implicit condemnation of the white world and turned it on each other; Pecola’s luckier, happier friends, Claudia and Frieda, and their fussing but loving parents; the girls’ snotty schoolmates and clucking neighbors; and Soaphead Church, the sinister local soothsayer who provides the trusting Pecola with a means to her misguided dream.
The production works hard to create a physical reality that matches the imaginative force of Ms. Morrison’s writing. Toni-Leslie James has designed evocative costumes that take the characters through the seasons — from summer dresses to winter coats — and through the years, as flashbacks fill in the poisoned history of the Breedloves before their move to the North. Russell H. Champa’s virtuoso lighting throws menacing shadows and bright projections against the hanging curtains and cloths that demarcate the set’s multiple playing areas. And Mr. Ting creates memorable stage pictures, deploying his actors in tableaus that approach but do not tip over into a stylized expressionism.
The problem is that we see all of them through the distancing filter of narration. And even though the narrator is the endearingly astute and precocious Claudia, we never shake the knowledge that it’s the analytical, literary, unmistakable voice of Toni Morrison telling us the story. Bobbi Baker is just terrific as Claudia, easily conveying both her adult perspective on the events of her girlhood and the child’s more limited understanding of them. But even as a child, Claudia is bright enough to resent Shirley Temple’s blue eyes rather than envy them.
Pecola, on the other hand, doesn’t rage at the fact that a little white girl is dancing onscreen with the great Bojangles; rather, she ingests entire quarts of milk so she can keep putting her lips to a Shirley Temple cup. Adepero Oduye plays her as a kind of open wound, a gaping hole of want whose very need for love precipitates the brutal act of violence that undoes her.
Mr. Ting stages this climactic scene with a violent stage metaphor rather than with pictorial realism, and it’s the one moment of the play when you don’t mind being spared the immediacy of direct experience. Some horrors, it would seem, are best left to novels after all.