One of the characters in the Long Wharf Theatre’s adaptation of “The Bluest Eye” humorously states that they are in search of a “meaningless distraction to help the day pass.” The present reviewer urges anyone harboring such a quest to go see this production. In short, director Eric Ting’s take on Tony Morrison’s classical tale of alienation, although not an utter failure, falls short of capturing the enduring appeal of the original novel. The excessively lyricized production devises no emotional linkage to the audience, which is left perplexed and empty at the end of an overall long, dull and forced performance, which in turn adds nothing to the novel and rather takes away from its poetry, lyricism and soulful insight.
“The Bluest Eye” tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a black teenager who longs for acceptance and recognition by her peers in the racially disjointed society of 1940s America. She wants blue eyes, which she imagines will allow her to stand out of her poverty and ignorance and be admired by the public. On the page, her story reaches out to the outcast in all of us and aptly encapsulates the estrangement felt by a whole sector of society during that epoch.
Tony Morrison’s prose is exemplary and mesmerizing; her verse flows and never clutters the page with unnecessary adornment. Morrison’s single most venerable exploit resides in her ability to compose poetry which appears both airy in its boundless evocative power and earthly because of its matter-of-fact, proverbial language. Her outpourings of literary mastery, simultaneously elegiac and sanguine, always charm the ear, shaping a deluge of aptly crafted metaphors and symbolist representations, lending her own color to the language she employs.
Likewise, Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Morrison’s novel is commendable as she splendidly preserves much of the magnetic appeal of the original. Then, right from the start, the production correctly assigns the audience’s attention to the text: Magnified sentences taken from the novel are projected in lights on the stage, enveloped in darkness. Later, this technique is employed once more, refocusing our interest on the words selected by Morrison/Diamond. The actors address many of their monologues directly to the audience, a wise directorial route which centers the attention on the text and the deeply human stories narrated. Furthermore, the singing interwoven into the play constitutes in itself one excellent reason to go see “The Bluest Eye.” The voices, just like the words, truly delight the ear. Finally, the set design, arguably one of the strengths of this production, accurately reproduces the earthly, rustic setting of the novel, with its wooden levels of various heights and posts with white bed sheets hanging between them.
All of the aforementioned qualities augur well for the production which, with its focus on storytelling, is off to a good start, yet it quickly devolves into a mess. Such choices as having rain flood the stage or snow fall during a scene inevitably spoil the poignant impact of the original novel, which resides in its finely attuned dosage of descriptive restraint and voluntary expressiveness, and force on the audience one very narrow and monochromatic vision of the story. The resulting creation fails to grip the audience and makes the whole appear strained, and, quite frankly, uninspired.
The matter-of-fact acting style is fitting to the genre, yet it does not revolutionize it. The lighting is unnecessary intricate, and the various plays with lights and shadows add little to the story which stands out in and of itself: Such stylistic artifice remains futile and merely spoils the poetry of the events narrated. The artistic team has failed to grasp the crux of Morrison’s talent; her evocative strength lies in its salient restraint, in the unsaid. Regrettably, the overly romanticized stage adaptation of Morrison’s masterpiece simply ruins her literary tour-de-force. The theatrical exercise, devoid of emotional appeal, falls short of leaving any kind of impression on its audience.
Thankfully, this production does not entirely consist of a literary decimation. Although limited in its enjoyment, “The Bluest Eye” at least succeeds in narrating the story of Pecola Breedlove, a life which longs to be shared. Yet its gripping appeal and pathos fail to translate to the stage. In this case, less would have been more, and a transparent rendition of the novel would have served the story much more effectively. Sadly, this production misinterprets Morrison’s storytelling ability: Humanistic stories with universal emotional appeal need little stylistic enrichment, and the author’s verse just speaks for itself. My advice: Get the book and delve into a personal reading of it, preferably near a fireplace, on a wintry evening.