“Violet,” directed by Skylar Fox ’15 and running in the Production Workshop Downspace this Friday through Monday, deals with problems of appearance, and avoiding the cliche, it does not discredit the power of the superficial.
The musical follows the titular character’s quest to heal a disfiguring scar, moving on a Greyhound bus across an American landscape fraught with the tumult of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement, Vietnam and the era’s religious revival.
“Violet,” written by Brian Crawley, tackles artifice, disguise and identity, as well as the lingering effects of the past on the present.
The musical begins at the home of a young Violet, played by a sprightly, childlike and spirited Sarah Black ’16. She plays in the garden as her father chops wood nearby. Quickly, this idyllic scene turns tragic as the blade of his axe flies off and hits Violet, permanently damaging her face. Three years after her father’s death, Violet, now played by Ellen Zahniser ’14, leaves her home in North Carolina in search of a televangelist in Tulsa who has promised on his show to use of the power of God to cure anyone. Zahniser holds a fantastic presence on stage and uses her versatile voice to convey both Violet’s strength and wit as well her sensitivity.
As Violet embarks on her pilgrimage, she befriends two army soldiers, Flick and Monty — played by Stephen Beswick-Bozier ’17 and Jason Connor ’15, respectively — on their way to Fort Smith, an army base in Arkansas. Their odyssey is interrupted by Violet’s memories and flashbacks of her father teaching her to live with her scar. The musical falls short in its attempt to draw a parallel between the society’s reactions to Violet’s disfiguration and the African-American Flick’s race during the civil rights movement. But the dynamic between Beswick-Bozier’s well-wrought, wisely restrained, contemplative role and Connor’s brilliant portrayal of the innocent and naive bravado of a man never marginalized by society helps make up for this failed and ill-thought-out attempt as a foil for Violet.
Two directorial choices add to the strength of the performance. First, despite the elaborate period costumes, none of the actors wear shoes, offering a level of nakedness and vulnerability to the veneer of the characters. Second, a series of mirrors framing the back of the stage in the first act reflects both the actors and the audience, creating an environment of visual self-awareness for the audience.
The music itself — a mixture of gospel and blues-infused pop — reaches its height when the solitude of the characters breaks down and the ensemble joins together in rare moments of inclusion. “Surprised” and “Raise Me Up” are the clear highlights, though the other numbers remain similarly captivating.
At points, the broad sweep through the time period can come up short — as though race, war and religion are merely landmarks to be checked off and not worthy of greater exploration. And Violet’s prayers for Ava Gardner’s cheekbones and Brigette Bardot’s lips can appear vain and superficial, especially compared to the violence that Flick faces. But for the most part, “Violet” is a worthy tale of attempted self-reinvention — a search for control over our lives and their surfaces.