In the theater, sentiment must be earned – Violet is moving and likable, but its pathos is only skin deep.
Violet Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through February 6.
By Bill Marx
Women with disfigured faces have long been a staple in film and literature, the handicap (a distaff variation on the mark of Cain) triggering either a quest for healing or for revenge. The former approach reaches campy heights (via miraculous plastic surgery) in A Woman’s Face, a 1941 Joan Crawford vehicle directed by George Cukor. As for vengeance, it is hard to beat Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat: half of her character’s face is horribly scarred by a pot of hot coffee tossed by a venomous Lee Marvin. Grahame gets hers back, memorably.
Alas, the musical Violet, based on a short story by Doris Betts, is not nearly as juicy. It takes the well-worn earnest route, hewing to the current fashion for dramas of empowerment with plenty of inspirational kick. The script uses Violet’s injury – a facial scar left after her father mistakenly threw an axe at her face – to build to a vision of psychological healing. The catch is that we are told that Violet is acutely ashamed of her looks, yet we don’t see her depressed, traumatized, or forlorn. There’s not much down time for this marred but plucky American heroine. Even the flashbacks to Violet as a child (played in the SpeakEasy production by Audree Hedequist) give us a kid who is perky as all get out. Today’s audiences and stage writers don’t have much patience with despair because it is seen as a weakness – a character flaw is posited and then, with pragmatic efficiency, the problem is on its way to being resolved, a reassuring moral message hammered home, hard, in the process. But in the theater, sentiment must be earned – Violet is moving and likable, but its pathos is only skin deep.
It is 1964 and Violet leaves Spruce Pine, North Carolina, for a bus trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the young woman hopes a TV evangelist will be able to have God zap her the looks of a Cyd Charisse and Brigitte Bardot. Along the way a romantic triangle develops when two soldiers take a quick-as-lightning liking to her – Monty, a ‘cock of the walk’ type, and Flick, a gentler, more mature African-American. The issues of Vietnam and Civil Rights are raised but quelled quickly; Flick is far from a political militant, while Monty thinks the conflict will be over in no time. The emphasis is on Violet’s rocky but essentially Austen-esque romantic awakening — which of the men sees her intrinsic value and offers genuine affection? — culminating in her confrontation with the problematic spirituality of the media-savvy preacher. That standoff (God is not going to cooperate) leads from bitter disappointment to the inevitable wrap-up: life should be about valuing strength of character rather than looks.
How Violet reaches this life-enhancing but unsurprising conclusion is fuzzy, perhaps because the final psycho-dramatic revelation is somewhat unclear: Is her self-hatred triggered because she felt unloved by Dad? Or does she feel she was singled out by God for punishment and needs to be forgiven? Or is it both? Another problem is that the heavy lifting in that pivotal scene is in the hands of one of the weaker members of the generally strong SpeakEasy cast. Michael Mendiola, as Violet’s father, is dryly reserved to the point of dehydration. Loving reassurances from beyond-the-grave that turn a life around should land some passionate punches: is this really the time for macho minimalism? I didn’t see SpeakEasy’s production of the off-Broadway version of Violet — this is the Boston premiere of an adaptation for Broadway, which likes its musicals deep Disney-fried: that might explain Violet’s somewhat perfunctory epiphany, the one-note characterizations, and Monty’s unconvincingly sudden transformation from king of the one-nighters to sensitive compatriot.
All of this said, Paul Daigneault’s staging, though it could use more nuance, offers plenty of pleasures. The supporting cast is sturdy: Kathy St. George provides some much needed flickers of humor: John F. King’s preacher is vibrantly slick. Nile Scott Hawver’s Monty is vivid, though the actor can’t push the preening character beyond oversexed stereotype. Dan Belnavis invests Flick with a laid-back (perhaps too relaxed) demeanor; he has a stirring singing voice. There is a live orchestra dexterously performing Jeanine Tesori’s comfortable score, filled with pastiche Americana — country ditties, folk tunes, torch songs, soft rock (Oy!) and, best of all, some very rousing gospel numbers, led with pick-me-up fervor by Carolyn Saxon.
Alison McCartan’s robust, can-do Violet sums up the strengths and weakness of Violet at SpeakEasy. The actress is gung-ho from the first scene and never calms down. The lively growl in McCartan’s voice assures us that — with this kind of native true grit at her command — Violet has nothing much to worry about. The resilient dynamo leaves her mountain top home, populated with dull-witted types, and learns what we all know she will learn — everything sorts out quite nicely. There’s a sticky moment that could have complicated things: Violet informs Flick that black can’t be beautiful. But she apologies immediately, so all is well. Violet will be rid of her debilitating obsession with her disfigurement. But, of course, theater should tackle the kind of scars that don’t heal quite so easily.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.