Every once in a while there is a play that reaches down and touches your soul and forces you to re-examine what is really important. One such play would be the Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori musical Violet, now playing at the Den Theatre in a brilliant production by Griffin Theatre as it kicks off its 30th season. Director Scott Weinstein, choreographer Kasey Alfonzo, and a perfect cast make this story of a disfigured woman and her journey to heal her face and her inner pain a must-see show.
The story takes place in very late 1963 and focuses on Violet Karl, who suffered a seriously disfiguring injury when she was twelve years old and has been living with its aftermath ever since: the looks she gets from everyone she meets are painful to watch, let alone experience. Seeing a TV evangelist “heal” the infirm on his show, she decides this is to be her salvation, so she uses what little money she has to take a bus ride from her North Carolina home to Tulsa to get him to heal her scar “that cuts a rainbow clear across my cheek.” Predictably, it is the people she meets along the way who help her far more than the evangelist ever could.
As Violet, Nicole Laurenzi gives a winning performance. She’s already onstage as the audience files in, waiting at the bus stop with her suitcase and her mama’s catechism/diary—her personal treasure—desperate to begin her journey toward some physical and, she hopes, more universal redemption. A brief interaction with townspeople shows us that even those she has known all of her life refuse to look her in the face. (The scar, by the way, is left to our imagination. It’s a wonderful double trick: first, no amount of theatre magic could make it as bad as she believes that it is, and second, without the visible scar we are left seeing through to Violet’s inner self far more clearly.) In her mind, her twelve-year-old pre-scar self, played by the very strong young actress Mary Lou Hlava, is a constant presence and reminder both of what once was and how much she lost when an ax blade flew off and cleaved her face in two. (Matt W. Miles is at his harrowing best as the father haunted by this accident.)
Along the way, Violet meets a variety of people including a sweet but solicitous old woman (Sarah Hayes, who also plays a hooker later on, showing a lot of range) and two soldiers named Flick (Stephen Allen) and Monty (Will Lidke), who are on their way to report for duty and possible deployment in the fledgling Vietnamese conflict. It is these soldiers who will help catalyze the greatest changes in Violet, as they come to see her not as a horribly disfigured person but as the lovely young woman she wants to be seen as. Flick, a black soldier—the script makes the point that being black in the 1963 South is probably far worse than being disfigured—sees her at first as self-centered, which she is. But as she ingratiates herself to both men, he begins to see that she is much like himself. Monty, too, who at first sees her as an easy conquest, comes to recognize that this Violet is worth far more. Still, she feels that the only way she will truly be worth anything is if the preacher can heal her face.
What Violet wants gets more dreamlike as the play goes on. At first, she prays to her dead mama for simple restoration: “Be an angel, Mama, help to save me / Make the Lord restore the face you gave me.” Later, though, she becomes obsessed with creating the perfect face: “Borrow Elke Sommer’s hair / With Judy Garland’s pretty chin / With Grace Kelly’s little nose / With Rita Hayworth’s skin / But Ava Gardner for the eyebrows / Bergman cheekbones under Gypsy eyes / I could shine like a moonbeam.” As her fantasy grows thicker, satisfaction grows further away, for (as Monty tries to tell her) the preacher (Anthony Kayer in a great televangelist impersonation) won’t be able to work those miracles.
Weinstein and Alfonzo make tremendous use of the small stage at the Den, aided by a clever set by Lauren Nigri, with pieces that slide out of and into walls and suddenly transform a bus into a diner or the whole thing into a blues club, etc. Izumi Inaba’s costuming wonderfully evokes the era (there is even a pillbox hat), and sound (Keegan Bradac) and lights (Alexander Ridgers) complement the proceedings perfectly. John Cockerill’s five piece orchestra gets to make an actual appearance in the blues club scene, a welcome moment for the audience to show appreciation for what we’ve been listening to all night. And the rest of the ensemble (especially Lashera Zenise Moore playing the lead singer of the preacher’s choir) does excellent work. There isn’t a misstep in the entire production.
By the time the cast gets to the final song, “Bring Me To Light” (“If I tell you my heart has been opened wide / If I tell you I’m frightened / If I show you the darkness I hold inside / Will you bring me to light?”), you’d have to be dead not to be moved and uplifted. I saw a lot of tears around me, well earned by the performers. This is a show you will remember for a long, long time.
Violet is now playing at The Den Theatre (presented by Griffin Theatre), 1333 N. Milwaukee, until January 13. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets are $30-42 and are available from Griffin Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member