Beauty, according to the maxim, is in the eye of the beholder. University Theatre pushes that casual aphorism to its limit in its moving production of The Bluest Eye, proving that beauty, as much as ugliness, is truly in the soul.
The play is skillfully adapted by Lydia R. Diamond from Toni Morrison's novel. It candidly explores the painful voyage of Pecola Breedlove (Dominique Chestand), a young African American girl who is tragically obsessed with the idea that having blue eyes would magically make her beautiful. And for beautiful, in 1940s Ohio, read "white." Director Derrick Sanders has done a fine interpretive job, moving the action briskly, but never at the expense of the play's subtle internal rhythms.
Sanders also finds ways to compensate for what Diamond has, by necessity, excised from the source material. For example, in the novel, three prostitutes take Pecola under their wing, but they are transformed, in the play, into a trio of unidentified characters who almost fulfill the role of a Greek chorus, insightfully commenting on the action in gossipy interludes.
There are several notable performances. Chestand is tenderly expressive as Pecola, and Sheri Williams Pannell, as Mrs. Breedlove, delicately balances pathos and passion. Sandy Adell, as Mama, is a comical whirlwind of action as she blusters endlessly at her two ingrate daughters.
But it is Olivia D. Dawson, in the role of Claudia, who ignites the proceedings. She is a powder keg of conflicting emotions and she never fails to set off a spark with each one.
The production is technically sound. Aaron Daniels provides an effective mobile set that includes a silhouetted backdrop that suggests an all-seeing eye watching the action. Matt Albrecht's imaginative lighting is particularly powerful in the final scene when Pecola, deep in the clutches of her delusion, dances at the epicenter of an enormous blue eye. It is a chilling and memorable vision.
Some may say that beauty is only skin deep. This material and this production make a mockery of such shallow sentiment as they open our eyes to a whole new way of seeing what lies beneath that skin.