While the musical Violet rocked the opening-night crowd at New Hazlett Theater, I sat watching quietly. I will try to explain what made me react in such an odd way, but the crowd’s response is no mystery at all: There’s plenty to cheer and laugh about in the show.
Violet has rousing musical numbers, cleverly scripted scenes, and flashes of humor that range from wildly bizarre to deftly ironic. (During a raucous nightclub sequence, in which guys are out to pick up hot gals, and vice versa, the song lyrics start with “Get loaded, get plastered / It’s the principal skill we’ve mastered.” The medley then waxes high but ends in a wistful cry: “It seems I don’t have anyone / When right now anyone would do.”)
A strong cast performs everything with artful gusto. In short, Violet looks like a winner for Front Porch Theatricals, the small Pittsburgh company behind the production. The Front Porchers do interesting musicals that aren’t widely known megahits; this vehicle fits the bill and they drive it like Indy-car champs.
So why did it leave me ruminating silently in my passenger’s seat? Maybe, in part, because I came in a reflective mood. And maybe because Violet is a weird hybrid—a high-energy spectacle wrapped around a story meant to invite deep reflection. Cue the background music, please.
Searching for a Cure
Violet, composed by Jeanine Tesori with a libretto by Brian Crawley, is adapted from a Doris Betts short story called “The Ugliest Pilgrim.” It’s set in the American South in 1964. To trace the story as it unfolds in the musical: Violet (played here by Elizabeth Boyke) is a young woman with a problem she feels is ruining her life. A childhood accident carved a dreadful scar in her face. Hoping that a famous televangelist can heal her, Violet leaves her home in rural North Carolina for a long Greyhound ride to the man’s church in Oklahoma. Though her face shocks some folks on the bus, two passengers get friendly. They’re servicemen returning to their U.S. Army base, a corporal named Monty (Daniel Mayhak) and a sergeant nicknamed Flick (Lamont Walker II.)
Flirtatious banter soon leads to tangled involvement. We’ve got a Monty-Flick-Violet triangle emerging—is it love, or just two dudes fighting to take advantage of a poor country girl?—while other complications bubble and boil. For one, Flick is black and Violet isn’t, and this is the South in the ’60s. For another, Violet may be a chick from the sticks, but she’s no naïve hick, as the guys learn when she cleans them out in a friendly game of draw poker.
The plot thickens throughout a bus trip punctuated by stops and layovers. And don’t forget, at the end of the road, a faith healing supposedly awaits. How’s that going to go?
Perhaps you can guess the clinical outcome. But I doubt you’ll be prepared for the writhing, earthshaking performance by the church choir, in a scene where they are rehearsing for a televised worship service. Are they really possessed by spiritual frenzy, or are they just, you know, rehearsing? And even after that—after the angel dust settles, after Violet has had her consultation with the preacher (Erich Lascek), and after the triangle gets sorted out, in a sort-of-sorted-out way—numerous questions still float in the air, unresolved.
The Invisible Scar, the Miracle of the Axe Head
Violet defies simple analysis, and I don’t plan to indulge in a complex one, so let me confine my response to the following few thoughts.
You could say that on one level (and maybe more), Violet is a show about reality and illusion. You could also say that the theme is reinforced by the show’s heavy use of theatrical illusion, and we’re not talking about special effects, but “natural” effects.
For example: We never see Violet’s scar. Actress Boyke wears no gory makeup; the Pittsburgh practitioners who learned that gruesome art in the Living Dead movies have not been turned loose on her face. Afterward I learned that instructions on this matter were written into the script. No production of Violet—from the 1997 off-Broadway debut through its recent Broadway revival to the Front Porch version—has had a leading lady with a visible scar.
Watching the show, I found this device (or more accurately, this absence of device) to be puzzling and frustrating at times. Here’s a woman who’s much better looking than I am, yet she’s acting as if she’s all uglified, and so are many (but not all) of the people who look at her. But, upon further reflection, I must admit the trick has elements of both psychological and sociological accuracy. We all know folks who think there’s something wrong with them when there isn’t. We also know folks who think there’s something wrong with others when there isn’t … and hey, you can take it from there; go find your own meta-meanings.
Another theatrical device in Violet is the use of two actresses playing the same character. Boyke, though onstage constantly, is only the adult Violet. Samantha Lucas plays young Violet, appearing at the start of the show and re-appearing frequently in flashback. This device works seamlessly, and it’s very effective.
Through Lucas we see a re-enactment of the accident that caused the scar. Violet’s father is chopping wood. (Jonathan Visser, in dad’s role, pantomimes the axe-wielding.) Young Vi, then 13, skips by singing a folk song. The axe head flies off the handle, and whammo.
One could possibly find a Biblical reference here. In the Second Book of Kings, there’s a passage commonly called “the miracle of the axe head”: Elisha and his band of prophets are cutting wood by the River Jordan when one man’s axe head flies off and sinks in the water, lost. Elisha makes it float to the top so it can be retrieved.
Will Violet get a miracle? I’m not telling. I do recommend the show.
Closing Credits and Ticket Info
Violet is directed for Front Porch Theatricals by Robyne Parrish. Through May 28 at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
Actors not mentioned above are David Ieong, Missy Moreno, Daniel Pivovar, Gena Sims, Corwin Stoddard, and Becki Toth, all in multiple roles. They’re good and so is the band. For showtimes and tickets visit Front Porch on the web; information on group sales can be had at 412-551-4027.
Photos by Martha Dollar Smith.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.