If the opening night audience at CENTERSTAGE is any indication, my response to Gleam-Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner's adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God-is well in the minority. I can understand people's enthusiasm for the play; I can appreciate the labor of love that brought it to life-from Rattner, from director Marion McClinton, from the cast and crew-but at the end of the evening and throughout, I was not much moved.
Admittedly, I have no strong emotional connection to the source material. I've read Hurston's novel twice: the obligatory reading, of which I retained almost nothing, in high school English class, and a revisiting by choice a decade later. These two encounters left me with a vague recollection of the plot-a beautiful black woman named Janie comes of age in early-twentieth-century America, helped and hindered by three very different men-but what I remember most is Hurston's gorgeous prose. From the first sentence I was swept up in language so potent at times the story seemed beside the point. I've reopened my copy of the book, and I'd like to quote its opening lines out of deference to Ms. Hurston, lest what follows suggests a lack of appreciation for her genius:
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead.
The woman is Janie, and the story begins at the end, with her return to the town once ruled by her late second husband, Mayor Jody Starks, "a town all outa colored folks" where he could be "a big voice." The women gossip because Janie left with fancy clothes and a disreputable companion and she has come back in dirty overalls; the men only half hide their admiration because beneath the dirt and the overalls she remains a very desirable woman. Janie begins to tell her story to Pheoby, her oldest friend, and Pheoby in turn tells it to us.
To Rattner's credit, she doesn't fashion her play entirely out of Hurston's poetry. Her characters speak the heightened language of literature, but-with the exception of stretches of narration-the words sound organic to the people, and the actors for the most part inhabit them. As Janie, Christiana Clark is particularly mesmerizing, striking a rare balance between grace and power, between youthful joy and soul-hardening experience. With her slender figure, full voice, thick hair, and strong arms, Clark's Janie reflects all things to men-to her unimaginative first husband, she is as fit for harnessing a mule and plowing a field as she is for gilding a great man to Jody; her third husband, Tea Cake, twelve years her junior, lures her to the "muck" of the Everglades, where he teaches her to shoot a gun and speak "de maiden language all over."
As Jody, Axel Avin, Jr., has the big voice and the preening walk; we see immediately why Janie is drawn to him, and he to her, but as Jody ages he becomes increasingly a caricature. Rattner gives him little to do but sag beneath his massive ego and pick fights with Janie and the townsfolk, and Avin, Jr., brings little more to these scenes until Jody's heartrending death, for me the play's emotional center.
As a result, the second act, in which Janie meets Tea Cake and follows him to the swamps, feels like an anti-climax. As Tea Cake, Brooks Edward Brantly is more charming than charismatic, though he flashes glints of the danger that shall doom him. As with Jody, the character begins to lose his dimensions-Tea Cake seems at times like Janie's dream of love rather than a man of flesh and blood.
Though it would be unfair to characterize Janie as a passive heroine, the shape of her life is overwhelmingly determined by the men she meets and marries; as these men flicker around The Edges, she cannot help but do the same. Part of the problem may be that we don't spend enough time with anyone to know him well. Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a particularly long novel, but it contains plenty of action-including a terrible hurricane, effectively staged by McClinton, lighting designer Michael Wangen, and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen-and even more poetry. Rattner works so hard to preserve both, her script becomes a series of episodes strung together by Pheoby's lyrical voice-overs. Though Stephanie Berry delivers these lines with conviction, Pheoby the character has a very different voice than Pheoby the narrator (essentially a stand-in for Hurston), and the device is ultimately distracting.