I’m quite glad that I got the chance to catch Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of Violet this weekend, one of only two that it will be playing and a relatively rare staging of this 1997 musical. As director Bruce Lindser describes in the opening note of the show’s playbill, though the piece is something of a “cult favorite” among theatre people, it also isn’t one that seems to have gained much traction as far as mainstream popularity. Speculating as to why, he suggests:
“Maybe the show’s themes of forgiveness, redemption, and personal growth cut a little too close to the bone and challenge our comfort zones just a little too much.”
That may be true, but I’d also suggest the incredibly dark twist of fate that the musical centers on and the psychological realism with which the show portrays its ramifications as another likely reason that general audiences might be put off by Violet. In one tragic moment that will come to define her life for years thereafter, thirteen year old Violet Karl is permanently disfigured when the blade of her father’s ax flies off to slice her face in two.
While the tormented adolescence that follows this incident is flashed back to throughout the musical, its main plotline commences about twelve years later, in 1964. There, we find twenty-five year old Violet embarking on a cross country bus trip to visit a televangelist faith healer, who she desperately believes will be able to make her whole.
Though her unquestioning belief in this flashy charlatan may seem naive, it seems to be the only real blind spot for the otherwise worldly and headstrong Violet. Jaded by others’ perceptions of her and the mixture of cruel teasing and condescending pity she has become accustomed to, the character makes for a fascinating protagonist, confidently played in this production by a strong-voiced Caitlin Foster. The genuine obstacles her path has presented and her feisty determination to conquer them makes the show’s title character a very sympathetic heroine, and thus her arc an absorbing one.
And the journey audiences go on with her is, indeed, a tremendously transformative one: just not quite in the way that Violet intended. Instead of being physically reconfigured by a predatory preacher, she is instead emotionally transformed by various encounters with her fellow travelers, and by the occasion that this odyssey provides to process her complex feelings about her painful past and her now-deceased father.
Primarily, the impetus for this metamorphosis comes from Violet’s relationship with two traveling soldiers, the caddish white soldier Monty and the sarcastic yet sensitive black soldier Flick. Over the course of the play, both warriors end up carrying a torch for Violet despite her physical imperfection, creating a love triangle that adds suspense to the proceedings despite the fact that her failure to undo her injury is something of a foregone conclusion.
Kyle Smith’s charismatic portrayal of Monty and Anthony Blatter’s subtler portrait of Flick do much to give these flirtations credibility, and Blatter is also one of the many in the cast who deliver incredible vocal performances. Other standouts include Gustavo Garcia as the magnetic preacher, Olivia Beebe as a younger Violet, and Sarah Sun Park, who memorably knocks her solo out of the park in her relatively small part as a “hotel hooker” whom Violet and the soldiers encounter during their travels. The ensemble as a whole also gets many moments to shine while harmonizing in group numbers or portraying various other characters.
As indicated in the script, the show only suggests Violet’s scar in the dialogue and in the way other characters react to her rather than attempting to represent it visually, though one gory flashback moment gives us at least a glimpse of her accident’s bloodiness. However, the wound does seem to be figuratively represented by Aubrey Kestell’s scenic design for the show, in which a chasm glows in moments when the scar’s obtrusive presence is alluded to.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, who would later become known for her work on more popular shows like Fun Home and Thoroughly Modern Millie, is full of melodies both catchy and haunting, which, combined with lyrics by Brian Crawley, makes for an overall excellent score. Crawley’s book also does much to add nuance to the story along with allowing for moments of humor in exchanges like the witty banter between Violet and the soldiers.
The show also at least touches on issues of racism inherent to its time period, implying that part of the mutual attraction that develops between Flick and Violet is due to the fact that both understand what it is to be marginalized and mistreated due to unchangeable physical attributes. Though more of a focus on his inner life and struggles as opposed to primarily on the white Violet’s may have made the narrative feel somewhat more balanced and their trajectory feel more earned, their relationship still makes for many affecting moments, as when she describes how refreshing she found it to be looked at by him:
“Like you’d seen worse things,” she describes.
Other moments, such as when Violet fantasizes about returning from her adventure not only with a healed face but with the coveted features of various Hollywood leading ladies, seems to tap in not just to her unique situation but to a more universal experience of looking in the mirror and finding one’s self failing to measure up.
Though she may have more grounds than most to feel limited by her looks or to blame them for her unhappiness, she’s far from the only woman to do so, which also gives her journey towards self-acceptance and authentic connection profound implications that extend far beyond her own extreme circumstances. Thus, even without a faith healer who saves the day, the faith that Violet’s key characters find in themselves and in one another are enough to create a powerful catharsis.