CHAPEL HILL — PlayMakers Repertory Company's must-see production of "The Bluest Eye," a stage version of Toni Morrison's 1970 novel, abounds in first-rate acting, direction and design. It succeeds despite a script whose faithfulness to the book weakens its theatrical potential.
Morrison's novel focuses on Pecola Breedlove, a dark-skinned young girl in 1940s Ohio who is abandoned by her parents, ignored by white people and ostracized by members of her own race with lighter skin. Pecola desperately wishes to have blue eyes to make her like the happy white families she sees in her school primers and in movie ads. Her quest for this ideal leads to tragedy and madness, a telling indictment of discrimination's long-term damage.
Lydia R. Diamond's 2005 adaptation cleverly arranges the script so that eight actors become twice as many characters. Diamond sets up many warm, moving scenes and creates memorable theatrical moments, such as a tap dance as plot device and an actor portraying a dying animal.
Diamond employs the time-honored technique of characters stepping out of scenes to narrate and comment. But by placing so much of Morrison's poetic observation and pointed character description in actors' mouths, the audience is told more about the characters and situations than what's shown and enacted. Scenes of great emotion or humor are robbed of immediacy by sudden shifts from character to narrator. She also lets certain scenes go on too long, not fully understanding how quickly a mood, a trait or a thematic point can be made theatrically.
The cast minimizes these problems. Danika Williams doesn't play Pecola for sympathy, showing instead the character's own little world born of a need to be loved. Allison Reeves and Georgia Southern give sisters Claudia and Frieda sassy charm and endearing quirks, their befriending of Pecola and their understanding of her plight by turns hilarious and heartrending.
As Pecola's mother, Joanna Rhinehart projects layers of hurt, betrayal and shame. Adrian Bailey gives Pecola's father an early innocent goodness, vividly transformed into drunken rage and violence. Strong contributions by Kathryn Hunter Williams as the two sisters' protective mother, Heaven Stephens as the privileged, light-skinned Maureen, and Lou Ferguson as self-appointed seer Soaphead round off one of the best PlayMakers casts seen recently.
Director Trezana Beverley goes all out to animate the script. She keeps the pace brisk, defeated only in scenes where dramatic thrust is stymied by literary bulk. Robin Vest's lovely two-story house and backdrop evoke the period, which is beautifully enhanced by Peter West's radiant lighting. Anne Kennedy's costumes are almost characters themselves, from colorful children's frock to elaborate funeral garb.
Because of Morrison's insights and the production team's contributions, "The Bluest Eye" is highly recommended, despite the script's flaws.
Correspondent Roy C. Dicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org