Finding inner beauty in ’Violet’

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday August 3, 2010

The country-flavored musical Violet has become a favorite with regional and smaller theaters around the country, such as the F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company whose production continues through this weekend in Watertown. EDGE spoke to the show's two leads -- Shawna O'Brien, who plays Violet, and Kaedon Gray, who plays Flick (one of the soldiers) to talk about the musical message, its social and political subtexts and what they feel about their characters.

Beauty's only skin-deep is an age-old (even trite) adage, but never has it been more lyrically expressed than in Violet, the 1997 musical about a disfigured young woman's journey to self-acceptance. Adapted from Doris Betts' short story 'The Ugliest Pilgrim,' the musical follows a 25-year old Appalachian woman who travels to Oklahoma with hopes that a televangelist can erase the scar across her face. Along the way she encounters a pair of soldiers - one white and one black - who befriend, even romance her, giving her a feeling of acceptance she has never felt before. Set in 1964 in the South, the show embraces issues of segregation and race, as well as the Vietnam War.

With a book by Brian Crowley and a score by Jeanine Tesori, Violet had a relatively brief off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons. Shortly after it closed, it was awarded both the New York Drama Critics Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. Subsequently it has become a favorite with regional theaters and smaller companies throughout the country. This weekend the F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company's production closes its two-week run at Watertown's Arsenal Center for the Arts Black Box.

In assessing the musical, theater historian Ethan Mordden wrote: "Crowley comes most alive in his lyrics. He makes poetry out of the vernacular, so that we receive these characters as if we're right on the bus or in a chapel with them. And Tesori's ready ear sets them singing in what may be the best of all of our theater country scores... crafted to make simplicities eloquent..."

Recently EDGE caught with the production's two leads: actors Shawna O'Brien (Violet) and Kaedon Gray (Flick) to talk about the musical message, its social and political subtexts and what they feel about their characters. O'Brien appeared most recently in The Superheroine Monologues where she played Wonder Woman, as well as productions of Evita and Sweeney Todd. She appeared with the F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company in their production of Nevermore, a musical based on the life of Edgar Alan Poe. Gray, a Berklee College of Music graduate, is a singer who works in a variety of popular musical styles (country, indie rock, soul). In the theater he has appeared in productions of Once on This Island and Smokey Joe's Caf. To hear some of Kaedon's vocals and to learn more about him (and his keen fashion sense) visit his MySpace page.

Challenging roles

EDGE: Were you familiar with the musical before you auditioned?

Shawna O'Brien: Yes. I had never seen it, but was familiar with the music and the story.

Kaedon Gray: No I wasn't. In fact, I almost didn't audition for it at all. When I first came across the audition call, I just didn't want to be bothered with this specific time period in the South. However, it's far from a heavy piece. There are some funny moments that sneak in.

EDGE: What attracted you to the role?

Shawna O'Brien: It's a huge challenge. I get to play a wide range of emotional levels and the score is incredible.

Kaedon Gray: I fell in love with the score and not even necessarily just the music for my character. There are a few moments in the show when I know I'll cry every night: Young Vi singing, "mama, why's a man have eyes" being one. I'm ready to bawl my eyes out every time I hear it. It's a beautiful melody we get to hear a few times. Another is "Bring Me To Light."

EDGE: Have you read the short story the musical is based on?

Shawna O'Brien: Yes. Since the short story is told from Violet's point of view, it was extremely helpful in giving me some insight into her thought process.

Kaedon Gray: Again, no. But it's next on my list of Must Reads, right after the current issue of WWD.

EDGE: Why do you think both men are attracted to Violet?

Kaedon Gray: Violet is terribly naive and innocent. Both Flick and Monty, though still young, have already started to realize how cold the world can be. Sometimes in our lives, what we need more than anything is a fresh set of eyes to motivate us to a new perspective. And that's what they get with Violet. Well, that and she's a female. I mean, come on. They're horny soldiers.

EDGE: Violet is as much about issues of race in the South as it is about her personal quest for healing. Do you see parallels in the way Flick is viewed by some of the Southerners to the way Violet is viewed?

Kaedon Gray: Of course. There's the major issue of superficiality with Flick and Violet. The cause of their pain/discrimination is literally only skin deep, which is what unifies them so profoundly.

A deeper message

EDGE: What do you think Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley are saying in the musical?

Shawna O'Brien: I think there's definitely an element of the "beauty is only skin deep/don't judge a book by its cover" theme, but the show is all about looking below the surface and beyond what's obvious. If you look beyond the obvious message, there's also a deeper message about healing and forgiveness.

Kaedon Gray: They didn't reinvent the wheel here. It's the classic tale of having to travel to Timbuktu to find the you that's been right under your nose the whole time, at the same time discovering that you aren't so bad at all. It's also a touching story of love and forgiveness. Though he's no longer alive, Violet forgives her father and realizes that he couldn't have had an easy time in life either.

EDGE: Do you see Violet's faith as nave?

Shawna O'Brien: Yes and no. I think it is understandable that others see it as nave, but to her, that's all she has. When Flick tells her she's being nave, she responds by saying that he would be too if he needed to badly enough. She believes the things she does because she has to. Her faith keeps her going and allows her to make this journey that ultimately ends up teaching her something different than what she originally expected.

EDGE: How do you approach playing a role in which her appearance is so crucial to the story?

Shawna O'Brien: I try to think of the scar in terms of how it affects her emotionally rather than looking at it from a purely physical perspective. The scar is merely the physical representative of the emotional pain that has become a part of who Violet is.

EDGE: Is Violet's scar left to the audience's imagination in this production?

Shawna O'Brien: Yes.

EDGE: If so, how do you communicate her self-consciousness about it in your performance?

Shawna O'Brien: Some of it is body language. But mostly it's communicated emotionally. The accident left its mark on Violet physically, but it did far more damage to her mentally and emotionally. She lives with a lot of pain as a result of what happened and views herself as damaged goods.

EDGE: Violet is essentially about her physical journey; but it also about her spiritual journey to closure and acceptance. How do approach her transformation?

Shawna O'Brien: I just try to break it down to something that I can relate to. Everyone has their own baggage that defines them and that they have to learn how to live with. Equating it to things that have happened in my own life helps me connect to her and understand where she's coming from.

EDGE: What do you like about the score?

Shawna O'Brien: The score is so different from the typical musical theatre score. It has a country/folk feel to it and the melodies are absolutely beautiful.

Kaedon Gray: Ahh, I answered this question too early. (Laughs.) My favorites are the melodic threads that Violet and Young Vi share throughout, whether they appear as full songs or mere transitions. Also, there's a good deal of singing in the round, which I really like. Without question, the show is about Violet, Flick and Monty. These round moments, however, clearly and cleanly introduce the other characters, give us just enough about them to see them in an appropriate context to the principals and do it in an interesting way: I love it.

EDGE: What's is the most challenging aspect to your character?

Shawna O'Brien: It's hard for me to reign in the emotional stuff once it gets going. What she's going through is really powerful and even the circumstances are different, it's a really relatable journey. When I'm able to connect to what she's experiencing, it can get pretty intense. There's a fine line between the character losing control and the actress losing control and I basically tread that line for a lot of the more emotional scenes.

Kaedon Gray: Oh you mean besides the actual acting? Finding Flick's literal voice has provided an unexpected challenge. It's been 20 years since I've had a Southern accent. I've listened to the other characters for aural cues, as well as Michael McElroy's interpretation and I'm still not solidly decided. No pressure, but the show opens in two days, right? Oh well. We'll just see what I come up with. If Flick turns into a British naval officer halfway through the first act, just consider it my artistic license and go with it.

Larger issues

EDGE: Do you see any parallels between Violet being judged by her appearance with Flick being judged as a black man?

Shawna O'Brien: Yes, and it's extremely ironic that Violet doesn't seem to grasp that right away. She's a bit sheltered in that way and it takes her awhile to understand how similar she and Flick are in the way they are perceived by the world around them.

EDGE: One of the larger issues Violet deals with is segregation. Did you do any research into the Civil Rights movement in preparation for the role?

Kaedon Gray: Not specifically in preparation for Violet, but I've been reading Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin for 4 years! It's tough stuff to get through. It was a gift from my ex-boyfriend, who happens to be a prominent professor at Harvard University whose area of expertise is the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

EDGE: Things are obviously very different now than they were in 1964, but have you experienced any discrimination in your life similar to that seen in the musical?

Kaedon Gray: Not even close.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

Shawna O'Brien: I have a few moments that I love, but I think my favorite is the moment Violet shares with her father towards the end of the show. She thinks she's had her "miracle" and she's been healed. And in a way she's right. It's the moment that she forgives her father that begins her real healing process. I just think it's a really relatable moment. Violet realizes that her father did the best he could and that realization in and of itself is a huge release and a huge weight is lifted off her shoulders.

Kaedon Gray: The flashback scene with Young Vi and Billy Dean. I laugh every single time. These two actors nail it.

EDGE: What keeps the musical from being a period piece?

Kaedon Gray: Beyond the actual mention of the year in the very first scene, there really isn't much to date this show. All those cities still exist. People still travel by bus. I know I do. And these issues of racism, forgiveness, love, loss, etc are still contemporary concerns.

EDGE: What do you like about Flick?

Kaedon Gray: We're both from the South. (My hometown is Durham, NC.) And, well, we're both black. So I like that we have some very natural and obvious similarities, but I feel like that's where we start to take divergent paths. He's not nearly as much of a label obsessive as I am. I've asked Joe (DeMita, director) about having Flick carry a different luxury duffel for each of the 6 performances (Valentino, Helmut Lang, Dolce and Gabbana, etc.) He didn't quite see my vision. But seriously, I like Flick's strength of character. He doesn't hold it against Violet for having sex with Monty, being unintentionally racist or even for having that darned scar in the first place. The story seems to suggest that he takes an honest interest in her from the moment they lay eyes on each other.

EDGE: One reviewer compared Violet's journey to that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz - do you see the analogy?

Shawna O'Brien: Absolutely. It's very similar. She spends the whole show believing that the Preacher has the power to heal her and make her whole again and the betrayal she feels when she realizes that the man behind the curtain is a total fraud is very tough for her to swallow.

Kaedon Gray: I think the better question is how can you not, really? The discovery that, in the end, you're the same person, just with a different perspective. Everything you needed has been around you and in you the whole time. The Preacher is absolutely the wizard in this show. When Shawna (O'Brien) came out dressed as Violet I immediately thought, "oh my God, it's Dorothy." But Dorothy had better shoes than Violet, though.

EDGE: At the end of the show Violet and Flick are together - what do you think happens to them?

Shawna O'Brien: I'd like to think that they live happily ever after. Of course, reality is much more complicated than that - probably why it is left open ended, but whatever happens, I think they will always be a part of each other's lives.

Kaedon Gray: Okay, then. So we're already writing Violet II: The Return Ticket. Let's see. They have a baby that doesn't look anything like Flick. They go on Maury Povich for a paternity test, which proves it's Monty's. Then we end up with Violet running backstage to collapse in a heap of tears, hair and smoker's breath. But, at this point, we all know how faithful Flick is. He runs after her, breaking into a song about how he still loves her and will stand by her no matter what. They live happily (enough) ever after. The end.

Violet continues at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through August 7, 2010. For further information and performance times visit the F.U.D.G.E. Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].