The Players’ current musical, Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori’s “Violet,” concerns the unlikely pilgrimage of the title character. The year is 1964. Violet (Kathryn Parks) is a young woman with a disfiguring facial scar, thanks to a childhood accident. Now, she’s leaving her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains behind.
Violet’s taking a Greyhound bus to the Tulsa, Okla., temple of “The Preacher,” (Chris Caswell) an Oral Roberts-esque televangelist, to ask him for a faith healing.
Sometimes the punchline comes first. In this case, the cruel joke’s on Violet. It’s clear from the start there’s no miracle at the end of her road. (The play is called “Violet,” after all. Not “Faith Healer!”) What matters more is the journey itself — and how she’ll respond to the inevitable letdown at the journey’s end.
Like Chaucer’s pilgrims before her, Violet meets many strange and wonderful characters along the way. She shares most of her journey with two soldiers, Flick (Michael Mendez), who’s black, and Monty (Brian Craft) who’s white. They help open Violet’s eyes during their shared travels through the still-segregated South. She realizes she’s not the only person unfairly judged by their face. Violet’s heart also opens — and an uneasy romantic triangle forms. Flick’s love remains unrequited. For now.
Violet’s story unfolds to a Southern-fried soundtrack, from bluegrass to the blues. Crawley penned the script and lyrics; Tesori (of “Shrek: The Musical” fame) composed the songs. Their musical is an adaptation of Doris Betts’ “The Ugliest Pilgrim” — a Southern Gothic short story in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. Tesori and Crawley stay true to Betts’ wistful short story and her protagonist’s quirky speech patterns.
Director/choreographer Bob Trisolini and director Pam Wiley bring Violet’s pilgrimage to life on the Players’ stage. Their pitch-perfect grasp of the rhythms of casual conversation make you feel like you’re eavesdropping on real people. They make the musical numbers flow naturally out of the story and not seem like surreal interruptions. Their approach feels true to life, never stagey. Kudos.
The actors all shine in this finely drawn character study. Parks rattles cages as the spunky Violet — a grown-up cousin of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” No prosthetic depicts her scar; that’s left to your imagination. (Based on the shocked reactions, it’s not pretty.) Parks nicely conveys her character’s furious desire to be pretty and not be defined by her scar. Craft’s Monty is cocky on the surface, but gradually reveals hidden depths. Mendez’s Flick is a nuanced study of a hip, young black man who’s learned the fine art of walking on cracked eggs in an age of racism. The versatile Alan Kretschmer is touching as Violet’s guilt-wracked father. As flashbacks reveal, he’s responsible for the axe accident that disfigured her. (To boost Violet’s self confidence, he teaches her poker. It pays off.) Hannah Beatt is winning as Violet’s younger incarnation in the memory sequences. Caswell’s Preacher is more subtly shaded than the usual caricature. He’s not a pure charlatan; God’s touch has simply left him.
Evidently it hasn’t left Violet. Based on the upbeat ending, she’s found a different kind of healing — on the inside. The scar on her face remains; her heart is made whole. More than her exterior damage, the scars on her soul made Violet an outsider. Now, she happily rejoins the human race and even finds love.
Realistically, that’s the happiest ending you could hope for in 1964. Violet can only hope that the art of plastic surgery will eventually catch up. For now, only her soul is healed.
And maybe that’s miracle enough.
IF YOU GO
“Violet” runs through Feb. 22, at Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit theplayers.org.