Entertainment » Theatre


by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Dec 5, 2017
Will Lidke, Stephen Allen and Nicole Laurenzi
Will Lidke, Stephen Allen and Nicole Laurenzi  

Based on a short story by Doris Betts, "Violet" won an academy award for best short film in 1981. Expanded to a musical with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music Jeanine Tesori, the show suffers from a weak second half (particularly given the riveting first), as well as music that has its highlights, but isn't particularly memorable overall. However, Griffin Theatre Company's masterfully staged revival, which opens the group's 30th anniversary program, overall transcends any flaws in the source material.

Set in September of 1964, the title character begins her pilgrimage from North Carolina westward to seek out a television preacher, whom she is convinced can heal her disfiguring facial scar. Along the way, she meets Flick and Monty, two soldiers bound for slightly less distant points, whose relationship, experiences and probable future convey the tumultuous social backdrop against which Violet's personal pilgrimage is set.

Through the first two-thirds or so of the play, the material is fresh, compelling and beautifully woven together, both by Crawley and Tesori's work and director Scott Weinstein's vision of it.

Through the use of flashbacks and dual casting of the main character as both a girl and a a young woman, the audience learns that although Violet's mother is absent, she has a loving, if unconventional relationship with her father. Her scar is the result of a terrible accident, rather than direct-from-factory assault so many stories require, and sadly most noteworthy of all, her sexual encounters, though troubled in their way, are chosen, not coerced.

Flick's race is rightly and necessarily of issue as the characters spill out of the Greyhound to meet the recently desegregated lunch counters of Middle America, but Violet and Monty also find themselves the outsiders in both the motel and nightclub in Memphis. It's only after the trio parts ways that the narrative devolves into pat explanations and a frankly confusing "resolution" to Violet's main journey.

In the smallish confines of the upstairs black box theater at the Den, Lauren Nigri's set design, Alxander Ridgers' lighting and Kasey Alfonso's choreography collaborate to create a series of intimate, shifting spaces. Nigri encloses the stage in a series of weathered slats, employing a shallow upstage platform raised about two feet above the stage floor to accommodate the world of Violet's childhood, background passengers on the bus itself, and ultimate the singer and band at the Memphis nightclub.

A simple bench, a handful of upright chairs and a few other pieces of furniture are the mainstay of most scene changes. However, the fact that the upstage wall rolls away to reveal the band for the nightclub scene, and the pull-out from the platform to serve as Violet's bed in the motel suggest the dozens of other tragedies and triumphs unfolding all the while as the audience focuses on the action here.

Izumi Inaba's costumes also serve the show's overall theme of seething change. Violet's simple shirtwaist dresses mark her rustic origins, just as the sharp dress suits and smart hats of the African American passengers on the bus convey the still-urgent need to visibly perform their "respectability."

Nicole Laurenzi and Maya Lou Hlava are both vocally and dramatically strong as Violet and Young Vi, respectively. In Hlava, we see Laurenzi's resilience, quick wit and ambition. In Laurenzi, we see Hlava's open nature and willingness to dream, but also the grim realism and practicality that drive her choices.

Stephen Allen brings Betts' well-drawn character to vivid life, and the richness of his voice makes one wish Flick's vocal role were more substantial. Allen's interactions with Will Lidke's Monty are so interesting, nuanced and well-executed that the love triangle, although enjoyable in its own avoidance of total cliché, is rather a let down.

Lidke is awfully good, as well. His defense of Monty in the face of their fraught introduction to Violet is neither stereotypically macho/white savior, nor is it tepid enough to read as perfunctory. His pursuit of Violet is interesting to the point of being meta, as both character and actor seem to know that sexual conquest is and ever shall be the next step for the soldier returned from war.

In the supporting cast, Matt W. Miles is very strong as Violet's father, though even he and Laurenzi can't quite overcome the awkwardness of Violet's fantasy confrontation near the end of the play. Similarly, Anthony Kayer is good as the preacher (and even better as the bus driver), but the scenes near the end simply don't hold up to the richly layered material early in the show.

Brianna Buckley and LaShera Zenise Moore's voices capture the smoky nightclub and the frenzied televangelist's stage absolutely perfectly. Connor Baty's performance as Virgil, the preacher's harried stage manager, is perfect enough to be anxiety provoking to anyone who's done the job.

"Violet" runs through January 13, 2018, at the Den Theater's Upstairs Mainstage, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago. For tickets or information, call 773-697-3830 or visit www.griffintheatre.com

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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