A robust stage version of ‘The Bluest Eye’ at Arden Theatre

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Jasmine Ward (front) as Pecola  and Nicolette Lynch in the background, in

Jasmine Ward (front) as Pecola and Nicolette Lynch in the background, in "The Bluest Eye" at Arden Theatre Company. (Mark Garvin)

The lively stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel, “The Bluest Eye,” jumps off the page and comes right at you. A robust production from Arden Theatre Company, on a sparse set and with a trio of excellent performers who play grade-school girls, adds to the story’s power.

The bittersweet tale is about little Pecola Breedlove, 11, who lives in poverty in an African American community that Morrison’s story sets in Ohio and in the ’40s, but that the play places less specifically. Pecola – rendered in a touching portrait of broken innocence by the actress Jasmine Ward – has a mother who works herself to the bone in a white woman’s home and a constantly drunken father who eventually molests her.

“Please, God,” she prays, “make me invisible, please.” She decides that her life would be better – or in her child’s mind, normal – if only she had the blue eyes of the children in her Dick-and-Jane primer she spends so much time reading. But it’s not happening. She rationalizes: “I figure God is very busy – and I am very small.”

Pecola is the product of constant disappointment, and in Ward’s portrayal, as fragile as a thin sheet of glass. But Pecola keeps a glimmer of hope alive and recovers quickly from feeling hurt. When the casually racist candy-store owner refuses to look Pecola in the eye or even touch her hand with change for the Mary Jane toffees she buys, the shunning makes her feel awful. A minute later, she’s happily walking down the street and unwrapping her sugary treasures. Ah, to have an 11-year-old’s emotional flexibility.

Pecola has two friends in the world – sisters Claudia and Frieda, played with a joyful naivete by Nicolette Lynch and Renika Williams. The three characters are the play’s narrators as well as themselves in Lydia R. Diamond’s nimble script that mixes their commentary and their dialogue.

Raelle Myrick-Hodges, who gave the Arden a sterling production of “Two Trains Running” a couple seasons back, directs “The Bluest Eye” with a keen regard for its displays of life’s disappointments large and small, and its depiction of existing on the outside. The supporting cast is terrific: Eliana Fabiyi as a black girl from a more well-off family; Soraya Butler as a hard-as-nails mom, forever reprimanding; Chavez Ravine as Pecola’s put-upon mother; Reggie D. White as her offensive, abusing father; and Damien J. Wallace as a charlatan soothsayer who tricks Pecola.

The show, a one-act running an hour and 45 minutes, gains 15 minutes from the last time I saw it, a decade ago. I’m not sure what the extra time is from — Myrick-Hodges’ production is tight and fluent. My single disappointment is the show’s muddy sound. “The Bluest Eye” is played on an open floor-level stage with the audience seated on risers on three sides and nothing in David P. Gordon’s open scenic design to sop up a tiny echo in the room. Fortunately, the play creates its own powerful resonance.

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“The Bluest Eye” runs through April 1 at Arden Theatre Company, on Second Street north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.

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