If you travel the theater circuit at all, you’ve no doubt experienced a few heavy-handed productions that employ screen projections to alert the audience as to the significance or definition of a given scene. If executed with technical savvy, this device can have artistic merit. It can just as equally come off as condescending. No need for such a gimmick with Violet, the Jeanine Tesori/Brian Crawley musical based on Doris Betts’ book “The Ugliest Pilgrim” that opens the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 40th season (congratulations, Rep!). Violet is about the nature of beauty – what it is, what it isn’t, how it’s beheld. This is as clear as a big ‘ol harvest moon hangin’ over North Carolina. Y’awl.
Forgive the southern flavor. You can’t help it with a story that unfolds entirely in the 1960s American South. Violet (a stridently impressive Hannah Corrigan) is on a pilgrimage from her Carolina hometown to visit a Jimmy Swaggert-like televangelist (Jason Heil, working up a sweat) whom she hopes can heal the facial disfigurement she’s suffered with since a childhood accident. On this multi-stop bus trip, she meets a couple of young soldiers, macho yet insecure Monty (Jacob Caltrider) and an intense African-American sergeant, Flick (Rhett George), and so begins an unlikely love triangle. Paralleling all this is a re-creation of young Violet’s (Katelyn Katz) relationship with her father (Jason Maddy) whose ax it was that accidentally scarred his daughter.
There aren’t a lot of narrative surprises in this nearly-20-year-old show, and Violet’s metamorphoses from joy to despair and back again late in the going stretch credulity. But the performances directed by Sam Woodhouse are rock-solid, and the musical score, while not boasting numbers that will stay with you for very long, has something for everyone: country, blues, bluegrass, rock and especially gospel. “Raise Me Up,” the highlight of the Hope Church sequence, is a real barn-burner thanks to Lula Buffington and a backing choir.
Set as it is in 1964, there is historical perspective in Violet. The most potent point made is that prejudice and fear of those who look different from us is as alive today as it was then.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.