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REVIEW: Splendid Bluest Eye (Guthrie Theater)

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Photo by Dan Norman.

Friends, family, intermingled:
Claudia (Carla Duren), Pecola (Brittany Bellizeare), and Frieda (Deonna Bouye) pile together into bed. Photo by Dan Norman.

Do you like your theatre interesting, intelligent, engaged with deep social issues, and not beating you over the head with a lecture? Do you also like brilliant acting, intriguing stories, and well-done perception shifts cut with inventive stagecraft? If so, The Bluest Eye, now playing at the Guthrie Theater, is your cup of tea.

Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye is many things, including an interwoven exploration of adult and child perspectives, desires (innocent and otherwise), relations (same), and the discovery of childhood. It’s also filled with elegant prose and vivid characters – all the more striking because this was Morrison’s debut novel. The adaptation by Lydia R. Diamond retains much of the character of the novel, while focusing the story’s lens even more intimately on two central families. The story passes quickly; despite the lack of intermission, scenes flow so well and engagingly that, by its end, it scarcely seems that 105 minutes have gone by.

At first sight, Maureen (Caroline Strang, right) literally sparkles in the view of Frieda (Deonna Bouye), Claudia (Carla Duren), and Pecola (Brittany Bellizeare) – one of several striking practical effects by scenic designer Matt Saunders. Photo by Dan Norman.

One thing that will not look familiar in this production is the cast: six of the eight ensemble members are making their Guthrie debut. Glancing at the program after the show, you might be surprised at who has a master’s degree and isn’t actually a pre-teen (or teen playing younger). The more familiar local faces of Shawn Hamilton (Daddy and Soaphead Church) and Regina Marie Williams (Mama) slip neatly into this smooth ensemble. Although the novel is populated with numerous other characters, they are not missed in Diamond’s stage adaptation.

“Smooth” is an apt adjective for the show’s pacing and direction by Lileana Blain-Cruz (also making her Guthrie debut, as are most of the designers). Special moments are spiced with practical effects like water flowing down a rock wall, a rain storm dousing the stage in water, and a sparkling bit of snowfall for a “special” character. These striking moments are like a judiciously applied dash of spice; many others are more subtle, like the score by Justin Hicks.

Although there are certainly many amusing antics, the heart of this story is a pair of interwoven dramas. In one, the young Pecola (brilliantly played by Brittany Bellizeare)’s problematic home life comes to a terrible collision when she is raped and impregnated by her father Cholly (J. Bernard Calloway). In the second, fellow pre-teens Claudia (Carla Duren) and Frieda (Deonna Bouye, also playing Darlene) adopt Pecola into their family/friendship circle, as we learn the background behind the various adult relationships and their dynamics. Along the way, the story investigates perceptions and self-perceptions of beauty, attraction, fulfillment, and more.

A lengthy discussion of The Bluest Eye would necessarily be spoiler-filled, doing justice neither to the unfolding of the story and dialogue in both the novel and the play. Suffice it to say that The Bluest Eye is one of the most interesting pieces of theatre in the Guthrie’s current, luminary-filled season.

The Bluest Eye plays through May 21 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine