Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut novel “The Bluest Eye” is a dark, gritty portrait of African-American life in 1940s Ohio. There’s beauty in Morrison’s lyrical prose, but the book pulls no punches in its graphic descriptions of sex and violence.
Lydia R. Diamond’s stage adaptation of “The Bluest Eye,” playing through Dec. 20 at Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, softens up some of the novel’s hard edges but maintains the heart of the story and stays true to Morrison’s cast of tragically flawed characters. The result is a moving, heart-wrenching production that basks in the simple pleasures of daily life, while also illuminating the pain and sadness lurking in the shadows.
Directed by Clayton Shelvin, “The Bluest Eye” centers on 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove (played by Constance Thompson), whose poor, neglected upbringing makes her an object of scorn and pity. Pecola longs for the bright blue eyes of the children she sees on television, convinced blue eyes will earn her the affection and admiration of her family and classmates.
The play, originally developed through the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2005, tells Pecola’s story primarily through the people around her. Multiple characters narrate the series of events that leads to Pecola’s sad end. Much of the story is told by Claudia and Frieda, two sisters who befriend Pecola when their family takes her in. As Claudia and Frieda, LaSharron Purvis and Destani Smith anchor the production with their bickering, banter and backtalk, drawing big laughs one moment and eliciting sympathy and heartbreak the next.
The first act introduces the homespun characters, with advice on stacking firewood in the winter from Claudia and Frieda’s father (Wayne DeHart, who also excels in the role of Soaphead Church, a spiritual adviser of sorts), a righteous scolding from the girls’ mother (Telisha Diaz) for drinking up all the milk, and a chance to eavesdrop on the town gossips hanging laundry out to dry.
The second and third acts reveal an uglier side of town life, particularly in the case of Pecola’s father, Cholly (played by DC Paul) whose dark past leads him to find solace in liquor and lash out at the women around him.
The entire cast delivers strong performances, all of them appearing on the Le Petit stage for the first time, with the exception of Idella Johnson, who plays Pecola’s mother (Johnson earned a Big Easy Award in 2007 for her role in Le Petit’s “Purlie”). Because the characters often address the audience directly, each actor has a moment to shine, but they work equally well as an ensemble.
The excellence of the performances is supported by top-notch production values. The rustic, rough-hewn set by Bill Walker is beautifully designed. Brad Peterson’s light design aids the storytelling through effective spotlighting during dramatic monologues, and often bathes the set in rich blue light, an echo of Pecola’s yearning desire. Props artisan Katie Cotaya delivers one of the most powerful reminders of Pecola’s blackness, in a creative theatrical moment that shouldn’t be spoiled here.
“The Bluest Eye” is the second production under Le Petit’s new artistic director Max Williams, who opened the season with Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” There’s a distinct similarity between the two plays, since they both examine moments small and large that define a community and shape the people who inhabit it. These productions not only acknowledge the importance of community, but in doing also the power of theater in building a community, a relevant message for the 99th season of this historic French Quarter theater.