Opera House Theatre Co. winds up their 2018 season with a powerful theatrical experience: the musical “Violet,” directed by Jason Aycock, with a score by Jeanine Tesori (who also wrote the music for “Fun Home”) and lyrics and book by Brian Crawley. It’s based on one of our own: the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame member Doris Betts. The story previously was adapted to an Academy Award-winning short film before making its Broadway debut as a musical in 2014. Now, it has returned to North Carolina with a moving production on Thalian Hall’s main stage.
Violet Karl (Kendra Goehring-Garrett) has been terribly disfigured by a hatchet accident to her face, all in the small North Carolina town of Spruce Pine. Today, Spruce Pine is small, and in 1964, when the story takes place, it was even smaller. Violet is obsessed with her scar. It is the first thing everyone sees and she cannot stop thinking about it. Finally, she has saved enough money to get a bus ticket to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she can be healed by a televangelist (Jeff Phillips) she watches on her TV back home.
In the song “On My Way,” Goering-Garrett’s beautiful voice carries us through this first step of her monumental pilgrimage and she soars like the wings of a dove. Actually, the only unbelievable part of the show is that Goering-Garrett is anything but beautiful. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but Aycock and the cast hit the nuances of the script. They perfectly paint a picture of the group traveling cross-country on a bus together and make the experience transformative for the characters and audience alike.
The bus stops in Tennessee for a meal and comfort break. Violet is well-meaning but, in a back-handed way, confronts a waiter (Jordan Wolfe) about his behavior toward Flick (Justin Allen Tate)—a young African-American soldier on his way to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Undeterred by the response that Flick and another soldier, Monty (Joe Basquill), have toward her efforts, Violet insinuates herself into their poker game. Stage-right her father (Christopher Rickert)—and a younger version of herself (Sydney Short)—appear and take us through Violet’s father teaching her to play poker (“Luck of the Draw”). It offers the first real insight to the backstory of the father-daughter relationship at the crux of the show.
Rickert has a beautiful voice and has long been one of my favorite singers to see on stage. But, here … wow! It is probably the best acting performance he’s given us. He and Short have fabulous chemistry as a confused and struggling single parent and an angry, equally confused teenage girl.
There is genuine love and affection between them, as well as multiple complicated layers of frustration and pain with someone you love the most in the world, trust most in the world, yet fear to have failed most in the world. For his part, Rickert, like many fathers, endlessly is baffled by his daughter. So he teaches her to play poker and drink homemade liquor. She’s going to have to survive in a man’s world, after all. By the final scene between Rickert and his daughter (both Short and Goering-Garrett), I am not exaggerating when I say tears ran down my face; I shook with sobs.
These three sold the power of the story.
The trinity is a powerful symbol in this piece and Aycock, who is wired for dance and choreography on a cellular level, reinforces that image visually, without being too heavy-handed. So, on the one hand, there is father, child and ghost set up with Violet and her father. On the other side of the stage is the relationship with Flick, Monty and Violet unfolding as another trinity. Flick still is the adult in the relationship with Monty, despite the difference in life-stations in the early ‘60s.
Tate is a powerhouse performer. He has a vocal range that must be heard to be believed and a subtlety to his acting so compelling, the audience is hypnotized by his every move on stage. As a foil for Basquill’s Monty, he is perfect. As Violet points out, “Monty does what you say”—meaning he radiates something that makes even a white, fresh-faced, young upstart shut up and take notice—and want to impress him.
Basquill is so damn charming as the sweet young thing about to get shipped to Vietnam. I kept looking at this child getting sent off to fight a war he can’t even articulate and realized it captures so much about the era. One can see how a girl fresh off the farm would fall for him. As Flick points out to her, he’s buying her candy because it’s easier than talking to her. The three tentatively explore and deepen a most unlikely friendship before our eyes. It is incredible and isn’t over played yet is so real. This can be best illustrated at the end of the show when Violet is crying and Monty is clueless to comfort her. He turns to Flick to ask him to make her stop. That moment sums up their relationship, but it took an hour and half of ground work to make it believable.
The ensemble—Chris Conner, LaRaisha D. Dionne, George Domby, Jeff Phillips, Heather Setzler and Jordan Wolfe—beautifully bring to life the people surrounding Violet on her journey. This isn’t a big “song and dance show,” a la Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe, but the ensemble must make the world real so the story shines. Combined with Aycock’s eye for staging, they take a minimalist set and simple story and flesh it out into something that positively radiates with vitality.
“Violet” might not have the name recognition of “The Sound of Music,” but the journey and story are no less powerful. What are the scars we carry with us? How do we genuinely heal from them? What do we offer other people? Where does our responsibility to others lie? Where does it end?
These are questions at the heart of the human experience. Violet asks them with tenderness, concern and confusion. It is a beautiful evening of theatre, and example of what live theatre can do to touch an audience’s heart.