- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

Musicals may be taking a beating this fall, but on the other hand, it has been a glorious season for literary adaptations. Close on the heels of the dazzling “A Prayer for Owen Meany” at Round House comes Theater Alliance’s incandescent production of “The Bluest Eye,” based on Toni Morrison’s celebrated 1970 novel.

Directed with a sure hand by David Muse — who also guided “Frozen” and “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” to transcendence at Studio — “The Bluest Eye” is pitted with sorrow. Yet the alchemy created by Lydia Diamond’s agile adaptation, exemplary ensemble acting, and well-placed bursts of traditional spiritual music lift Miss Morrison’s work from desperate sadness to tragic grandeur.

Set in Lorain, Ohio, in 1941, “The Bluest Eye” deals with small-town meanness and racial hatred leeched into the bone like a slow-acting poison. Like the novel, the stage adaptation functions like a jazz ensemble, with different voices, rhythms, riffs, and arpeggios all telling the story of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove (Carleen Troy), a black girl bearing a family legacy of physical repugnance.

Pecola most acutely feels the family curse. She prays to look like Shirley Temple or Jane from the Dick and Jane books. With blue eyes, blond hair, and pink skin, she reasons, no one will spit on her or make fun of her. Pecola longs to be her mirror opposite, like the pretty white girls she sees on the movie screen and in magazines.

Tony Cisek’s set is dominated by iconic images of Hollywood sirens that loom over Pecola — everywhere she turns, there are pictures of ladies who don’t look like her. Even in real life, lighter-skinned, pert-nosed beauties (such as Lia LaCour in the role of Maureen Peal) taunt and entrance her.

Miss Troy portrays Pecola not so much as unattractive, but hideously neglected by her family and community. With her hunched over posture, downcast eyes, and folded arms, Pecola does everything in her power to disappear. Even though she tries to be invisible, it does not shield her from her drunken father, Cholly (Jeorge Watson), who rapes and impregnates the child.

“The Bluest Eye” shifts between the events leading up to Pecola’s rape and clear-eyed flashbacks revealing what turned Cholly from an open and eager teenager into a monster and how her mother (Aakhu Freeman) went from a soft, starstruck young woman to someone stringy and hard who preferred the indulged white child of her employer to her own daughter. A chorus of gums-flapping gossips and tsk-tskers constantly comment on the goings-on in the Breedlove household.

In contrast to this ceaseless misery is the household populated by the bubbly sisters Claudia (Erika Rose) and Frieda (Jessica Frances Dukes), a warm and efficient place where Mama (Lynn Chavis, beautifully playing the strong, loving mother we’d all like to have) wields Vicks Vapo-Rub and cod liver oil like weapons of mass destruction and Daddy (Alfred Kemp) marks the seasons by the switches he uses on his misbehaving daughters.

The girls befriend Pecola and quickly look beyond her “ugliness,” yet Claudia especially is baffled and angered by Pecola’s obsession with white beauty. While Miss Dukes ingratiates as the easygoing, confident sister, Miss Rose’s performance is the restless, watchful conscience of the piece.

Reading the book as a younger person, you tend to searingly identify with Pecola and the lively Claudia and Frieda. Reading the novel years later and seeing the stage version, you are struck by the hollow echoes, the deep grooves carved into our collective psyches from racism and judgment over skin color.

Although there is no excuse for Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove’s abuse, a seasoned view puts it in the context of ingrained bigotry and self-hatred. Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove come from nothing, are nothing, and the symbol of their unworthiness is an “ugly” daughter.

Pecola’s fate is tragically predestined, but by escaping into madness she is at last free. Our final image of Pecola is her rocking back and forth, conversing with invisible admirers, gaze locked in the mirror. She sees the world with the bluest eyes — eyes that take away the pain and ugliness, eyes that reflect only one kind of pretty.

****

WHAT: “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, adaptation by Lydia Diamond

WHERE: Theater Alliance, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 5

TICKETS: $26

PHONE: 866/811-4111

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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