By Barry Reszel
Three of the 10 person-of-the-year finalists for Time magazine’s annual distinction include the Dreamers, Colin Keapernick and the #metoo movement.
Mary Travers has been dead more than eight years now and we still haven’t learned.
That’s the undeniably sad realization gained from Griffin Theatre Company’s breathtaking production of Violet. We are, as a society, no closer to taking care of one another as we were when Violet‘s story took place—just about the same time this recording was made—the early 1960s.
The clarity of this in-your-face realization is all of gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and damn depressing (small d). And wow, is it great musical theatre. Patrons of Violet may not sleep well for a few nights after taking in this powerful piece; that is as it should be.
It begins with the solitary, silent figure of Nicole Laurenzi as forlorn Violet, front and center, while the audience files into the small main stage venue at the Den Theatre. It’s a little eery. It’s a tad off-putting. Kudos to Director Scott Weinstein.
Soon it’s evident she’s waiting at the Spruce Pine, North Carolina, bus stop for a Greyhound journey she believes will extinguish all her past anguish. This is brought, she believes, mostly from an unsightly scar on her face caused by a broken axe blade suffered at age 13 as she watched her father chopping wood. Now in her 20s and both her parents deceased, Violet has finally saved enough money to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a miracle healing from a television evangelist who will make her beautiful.
As in most excellent storytelling, journey supersedes destination; deep scars are the ones most difficult to heal; and people met along the way can change one’s outlook on everything. Key to all of these are the two soldiers who befriend Violet on the bus, Flick (Stephen Allen) and Monty (Will Lidke). A pre-This Is Us treatment of childhood flashbacks (Maya Lou Hlava portrays Young Violet; Matt. W. Miles plays Violet’s Father) helps fill in backstory while adding emotional depth and understanding, (A full plot summary and production history of this 1997 Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (libretto) musical based on Doris Betts‘ short story The Ugliest Pilgrim may be read here.)
Tesori’s rich songbook is indicative of a Southern bus ride. Employing country, bluegrass, gospel and blues styles, highlights are the oft-reprised “On My Way,” led gorgeously by Laurenzi; Allen’s bring-down-the-house “Let It Sing;” and the gospel number “Raise Me Up,” belted out by the incomparable Lashera Zenise Moore as leader of the televangelist’s choir. But highlights are personal, and most Violet patrons will find their own among the universally strong performances of a stellar songbook.
Technical elements for this production are professional, not stand-out. That’s no putdown. A spartan set and functional costuming is exactly the right touch to allow these strong characters to drain the room’s oxygen. To that, Weinstein draws together a stunningly strong acting and singing ensemble. Their work is enhanced by John Cockerill‘s terrific music direction and Keegan Bradac‘s excellent sound design (difficult jobs with an un-miced cast, even in a small-ish space).
With as many interesting (and well-performed) sub-characters as this story includes (Anthony Kayer as the televangelist and Sarah Hayes as the old lady, among others already named), the job of providing gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and damn depressing (small d) on a nightly basis falls to the two leads.
It’s their job to draw out show’s central theme, paralleling Violet’s scar to the Black experience of the early 1960s, and to go beyond, illustrating Flick’s essential role in helping Violet repair many-layered scars and see beauty deeper than that offered via society’s superficial definition.
They do it to perfection.
The interplay between Laurenzi and Allen is mesmerizing.
And because of them, despite what Time‘s person-of-the-year candidates might indicate about this world and how far its inhabitants still have to go, Griffin Theatre’s Violet allows its audiences to ponder the question, When will we ever learn? and retain at least a modicum of hope in formulating their response.
Griffin Theatre presents “Violet” through January 13, 2018, at The Den Theatre’s upstairs mainstage, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.