We have seen family dramas by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams on the Guthrie Theater’s thrust stage, but rarely has that august venue presented a story like “The Bluest Eye,” about three black girls growing up in 1940s Ohio.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond’s must-see adaptation of Toni Morrison’s breakout novel, which opened Friday, animates the Guthrie’s biggest space with aching beauty, staged with deep care by Lileana Blain-Cruz and an affecting cast.
Although it’s suffused with bits of organic humor, the 100-minute one-act is built on an unflinching story. Pecola Breedlove (Brittany Bellizeare), a poor, dark-complexioned preteen, seeks an escape from the abuse the world visits on her and her family. Her father, Cholly (J. Bernard Calloway), is a drunk who beats his wife and rapes his daughter. Her mother (Stephanie Berry), hungry for any shred of respect, insists that her daughter call her Mrs. Breedlove.
It’s understandable, then, that Pecola wants nothing more than to disappear. As Yi Zhao’s lighting design tightens the focus on her, she imagines losing herself limb by limb until only her eyes are left. “I want them blue so people won’t turn away from me when I walk down the street,” she says in a revelatory moment. “I want them blue so my mama love me and I have friends and they think I’m pretty.”
She has two friends, sisters Claudia (Carla Duren) and Frieda (Deonna Bouye), whose family takes Pecola in and offers her respite.
Diamond’s script instructs that abuse be staged in a stylized manner. Blain-Cruz takes a show that could be mired in grit and poverty, and elevates it into stage poetry on Matt Saunders’ huge set of cracked concrete ringed by overgrown weeds. (It looks like a Jacob Lawrence painting drained of color.) A subtle but haunting droning sometimes underscores the action. (Justin Hicks is the composer and Scott Edwards designed the sound.)
The design sets the table for a brilliant cast that handles a difficult story with humanity. Bellizeare’s Pecola wins our empathy with her total innocence. In her confusion and hurt, we see the kind of youthful wishing and dreaming that all kids do. Bouye’s Frieda is the most mature of the three girls, but the actor is never too far ahead of her scene partners. And Duren, fresh, bright and full of verve, is superb as Claudia, a character of sass and endearing frankness.
The central trio is surrounded by players who find beauty in the ordinary. Berry imbues Mrs. Breedlove with a winning shyness and insecurity. Shawn Hamilton plays the sisters’ tough-loving father with grace, while Regina Marie Williams gives their mother lots of heart. Caroline Strang is entertainingly annoying as privileged Maureen Peal, while even Calloway’s Cholly, a monstrous shell, is empathetic in this powerful production that expands the Guthrie’s repertoire.