CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE
"BLUEST EYE" IN HARTFORD, "VIGIL" IN WESTPORT
By Tom Holehan
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: email@example.com.