SpeakEasy's "Violet": State of the Onion

Alison McCartan as "Violet"
(Photo: Speakeasy Stage Company)

Watching the drama unfold in SpeakEasy Stage Company's current production of the musical “Violet”, one is reminded of the familiar metaphor of peeling back layers of an onion to its core. First presented by the company some fifteen years ago, significantly revised in this one-act version, it's a fine choice to enhance Speakeasy's twenty-fifth anniversary season. In its present form there is improved focus and dramatic tension, even if it makes for an unusually lengthy tale at an hour and three quarters. That makes for a substantial challenge for an ensemble to carry, but the cast assembled by its Director, (the company's Producing Artistic Director) Paul Daigneault, is surely up to it. With Music by Jeanine Tesori (Tony winner for her score for Fun Home) and Lyrics and Book by Brian Crawley, based on the Doris Betts short story “Ugliest Pilgrim”, it's the saga of one woman's journey by bus from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in search of the healing of a severe facial scar. When the show first appeared off-Broadway in 1997, it lasted only a month, even though it won the Drama Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Awards as Best Musical, and a special Obie for Tesori's score. Subsequently championed by Tony winner Sutton Foster, it was given a one-performance production as part of the “Encores!” season in 2013, leading to a full-scale Broadway mounting in 2014. That version was also short-lived, lasting only four months, but managed to be nominated for four Tony Awards. Its eclectic score, including folk music. gospel, bluegrass, and Memphis blues, was very well received, as was the fact that it was now more clearly a true vehicle for a star turn.

Fortunately, SpeakEasy has a true star in the title role, in the person of Alison McCartan, who was so memorable in the company's past production of Bad Jews. In a dramatically different role, as the initially vulnerable Violet, she's really impressive. While enroute to Tulsa on a Greyhound bus, she encounters two servicemen, the sex-obsessed Monty (Nile Scott Hawver) and the more reserved Flick (Dan Belnavis), as well as an unnamed Old Lady (Kathy St. George, who also plays another unnamed character, a hilarious Hotel Hooker). Their scenes along the way are often interspersed with flashbacks to the relationship of Young Violet (Audree Hedequist) with her Father (Michael Mendiola). There's also an unexpectedly programed revivalist meeting where, brilliantly utilizing some fine local gospel singers, a certain belter named Lula Buffington (Carolyn Saxon) brings down the house (as did Belnavis a bit earlier). McCartan brings poignancy as well as a remarkable voice to the character, and Hedequist is wonderful, both professionally adept and warmly natural at the same time. When Violet ends her quest, it's a very satisfying outcome indeed.

The heroine of this production is Tesori; as she did in Caroline or Change, and even moreso in her masterwork Fun Home, her depiction of the chemistry of father and child always rings true. The most fascinating aspect of the arc of the show is how the score effortlessly shifts from one style of music to another as the bus makes its way (for example, country music as they're in Nashville). Crawley's operatic book matches these themes well, though his lyrics can sometimes be a bit predictable. Under Daigneault's superb direction, as well as the complex Music Direction by Matthew Stern and integrated Choreography by David Connolly, it's a terrific hit from start to finish. The creative team also shines, from the simple but versatile Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, to the perfectly executed Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, to the atmospheric Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by David Remedios.

It should be noted that the character of Flick is an African American one, which is significant for the play, as he and Violet share, in different ways, prejudice based on their respective skins. Both turn out to display how beauty is more than skin deep. This deceptively simple story has a lot to say, and its topicality makes it a must-see. This “Violet” may start out as a bit of a wallflower with hope for healing, but at journey's end (hers and ours) she truly blossoms.

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