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The Bluest Eye

If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan

"BLUEST EYE" IN HARTFORD, "VIGIL" IN WESTPORT

Adapting Toni Morrison's acclaimed 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, for the theatre proves a
mixed blessing at Hartford Stage where playwright Lydia Diamond's work is currently on view.
The play, a co-production with Long Wharf Theatre (it will transfer to the New Haven venue
directly after its run in Hartford), works only in fits and starts.

Morrison's sad story concerns Pecola Breedlove (Adepero Oduye), a lonely young girl
growing up in 1940s Ohio, who longs for the blue eyes that define her favorite movie star,
Shirley Temple. It's a powerful tale of self-image, coming-of-age and survival that, even while
retaining much of Morrison's eloquence, still becomes somewhat stilted, episodic and
confused in its transfer to the stage.

Sisters Claudia (Bobbi Baker) and Frieda (Ronica V. Reddick) act as Greek chorus in the
adaptation as they relate various vignettes about life in this poor community - the centerpiece
of which is Pecola's sad situation living in a household with combative parents. The talented
director Eric Ting, who staged the astonishing "Underneath the Lintel" two seasons ago at
Long Wharf, isn't as successful here in a production that looks messy and under-rehearsed.
The set (designed by Scott Bradley) consists primarily of several clotheslines heavy with
laundry hung on multi-level platforms which never clearly delineate locale. Some of the actors
are asked to play multiple characters which adds to the confusion especially since the
casting here isn't always up to the standards expected at Hartford Stage. Time will tell if
more performances will get "The Bluest Eye" on track, but in its current state in Hartford it is
a mediocre and often tiresome exercise.

There's some better news on the other end of the state where Canadian playwright Morris
Panych's black comedy "Vigil" has taken up residence at the Westport Country Playhouse.
This darkly humorous play introduces Kemp (Timothy Busfield) as he arrives at his aunt's
apartment after a 30-year absence to watch her die. In a running monologue over dozens of
very short scenes that cover a year or so, Kemp gets more and more impatient with the old
woman (Helen Stenborg in a nearly wordless performance) who seems to have no intention of
passing on. During this period we learn about Kemp and his unhappy childhood, cruel
mother, suicidal father and miserable existence. He's a classic misanthrope with no friends
and no relationships who, as time passes, seems to need the woman more than she needs
him. Despite the questionable subject matter, Panych keeps the grim laughter coming and
his writing remains tart and unsentimental even as his play eventually runs out of steam.

Much of "Vigil" is more or less a one-joke affair but it's a pretty funny joke and Busfield, in
the process, manages to make his unpleasant character rather good company. His ludicrous
demands for his aunt to get on with passing are done dryly and without commentary.
Stenborg gets endless mileage out of her priceless reactions of outrage and disbelief and
there is one huge twist late in the proceedings that catches audiences delightedly off-guard.
Observe Stenberg's reaction at this moment and watch an old pro who knows just how much
to give away and how much to withhold from an audience.

The play could certainly benefit from being pared to one act by eliminating many of the
blackouts which threaten the comedy's pace at every turn. Some scenes are less than 10
seconds long and achieve little except to note the passing of time or accommodate a
costume change. Ben Stanton's cavernous setting, which serves as the old woman's
apartment, is decidedly odd and may have something to with the play's existential nature but
I can't swear to it. The original music by the Broken Chord Collective would probably be less
annoying if it didn't have to be used so often for all those scene breaks. Director Stephen
DiMenna deserves credit for deftly staging the two-hander while coping with the play's busy
structure.

"The Bluest Eye" continues at Hartford Stage through March 23rd. For further information call
the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit the Hartford Stage website at:
www.hartfordstage.org. It will also play at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre March 28th
through April 20th. For further information call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit:
www.longwharf.org.

"Vigil" continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through March 15th. For further
information call: 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford's
Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us