Perceptions of beauty and brutal realities collide in The Bluest Eye, a co-production between Moxie Theatre and Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company adapted by Lydia Diamond from Toni Morrison’s debut novel. In the careful hands of director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (Moxie’s artistic director) and with the sensitivity of a fine cast, The Bluest Eye is the first wholly memorable production of the 2013 local theater season.
The year that passes (Ohio, 1940s) in the life of young African American girl Pecola Breedlove (Cashae Monya, at once childlike and haunted beyond her years) is a harrowing one with all too few answers to her heart-rending questions of self and her hunger to be loved and accepted. Her mother (Melissa Coleman-Reed) has been beaten into near-submission by poverty, racism and domestic abuse, and Pecola’s father, Cholly (Warner Miller), commits the unspeakable at her expense. While 11-year-old Pecola finds friendship and welcome hours of playfulness in the company of a temporary foster family – Marshel Adams and especially Lorene Chesley are first-rate as sisters Frieda and Claudia – she can not escape the ugliness of racism, and worse. She asks the wish-granting charlatan Soaphead Church (Abner Genece) for the blue eyes that will make her beautiful and perhaps free. The price of her wish is inestimable.
The lyricism of Morrison’s 1970 novel is ever-present in this thoughtful adaptation, commissioned by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and first produced in 2005. The Moxie-Mo’olelo collaboration succeeds not only on the strength of the ensemble and Turner Sonnenberg’s direction, but in its attention to little details that illuminate and trouble the heart as they should, like the Dick and Jane book Pecola clings to, a child’s fantasy of the perfect family life, and the blue-eyed blonde white baby doll that Frieda mothers and Claudia wants to destroy. In addition, the play’s two most horrifying scenes – both involving Cholly – are managed with laudable restraint, sacrificing none of their shock or significance.
The Bluest Eye suggests that Moxie and Mo’olelo’s first joint production should be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.