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Flyer InteractiveTheatre

Deep Purple

Circuit's simple staging of Violet is a bittersweet treat.

by CHRIS DAVIS

Guy Olivieri and Leah Bray
Violet just isn't your typical musical. Though it has its fantastical moments, it isn't a cheery, optimistic fantasy. Neither is it your stock and standard "boy meets girl." In terms of structure and storyline it's every bit as complex as any one of Sondheim's more narrative pieces. It asks big questions and leaves them virtually unanswered, and its final resolutions are tenuous at best. If Violet is indeed a journey of "forgiveness and healing," it is not without its share of cynicism and bitter irony. It is a play that flirts with magical realism and one that promises heavenly miracles, but delivers only stark reality, and difficult, very earthly solutions. It is a piece of theater overflowing with sublimated cruelty and peppered with moments of unlikely sweetness. It is a story that could give Carson McCullers a run for her money and make Harry Crews and Flannery O'Connor sit up and take notice.

Violet is a not-so-naive mountain girl who was disfigured at the age of 8 when her father's axe head went flying from its handle, striking the girl in the face and leaving an ugly, permanent scar. Secretly, she blames her innocent father for this accident and is unable to realize that he provided her with more than enough strength of character and personality to overcome any physical defect. At 25 she has set out for Oklahoma to visit a flashy faith healer, in whom she has absolute faith. She is convinced that with God's help, he can take away her scar and make her pretty again.

The musical is set at the beginning of the Vietnam era, and on the long bus ride to Tulsa (by way of Memphis), Violet encounters two soldiers, one white and one African American, who, in spite of (or perhaps due to) her terrible scar, fall completely in love with her. When her illusions fail her, and the faith healer turns out to be a fraud, it is their commitment to her that sets the healing process into motion.

Leah Nichols is sufficiently spunky and quite touching in the role of Violet. But she misses many fantastic performance opportunities. Her naturally starry eyes are never as starry as they could be, and her disappointments seldom seem to take their toll. She is possessed of such magnificent, unswerving confidence that it is hard to imagine why she would even care about a silly little thing like a scar on her face. Guy Olivieri, likewise, turns in an emotionally honest and effective performance that could be made significantly better by turning up the extremes just a tad. As Monty, the young white corporal who thinks he's looking for a little drunken slam-bam but instead finds himself head over heels, a little more calculated callousness early on could position him as the play's most tragic figure. As Monty's dark-skinned counterpart Sgt. Flick, John David Macon III is a little wooden, but he gets the job done armed with nothing but a great voice and a lot of honesty.

Jason Craig, whose comic gifts I have not been able to praise enough, sadly falls just a wee bit short here. He's got the televangelist schtick down, and some of his energetic delivery is on-the-money, but he telegraphs too much information far too early. He'll pause to glower wickedly at the audience long before the jig is up, and we know for certain that he is a fake. Therein lies the problem. There must be moments when the doubting audience wants to believe, even when their better judgment tells them otherwise. But they never can, and thus, the preacher's eventual meeting with Violet devolves into a nihilistic rehash of The Wizard of Oz.

The musical aspects of Violet are always getting in the story's way. The flavorless tunes tend to bog the whole thing down, and except for the gospel numbers, everything sounds too much alike. But it hardly matters. The themes are too strong, and the character's needs are too urgent to be squelched.

As a director, Kevin Shaw has yet to show any gifts for visual rhythm outside the arena of dance. He is geared more toward tableaux than necessary, life-giving action. It is a curious defect considering he is such a skilled choreographer. In Violet, the performers enter into various physical actions (a squabble or an embrace, etc.) only half-heartedly and end them before the image has had time to establish itself or take on any real shape. It is a sin of impatience, and it makes otherwise fine performances seem rushed, even as it makes an otherwise fluid piece of theater seem more than a little bumpy. But considering the uniqueness of the piece, and its undeniable potency these are all the minor gripes of a critic upset because a thing which could have been great was instead only very good.

You can e-mail Chris Davis at davis@memphisflyer.com.

Violet

Through August 6th
Circuit Playhouse


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