by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday August 7, 2010


Violet, a musical by Jeanine Tesori, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, is set in 1964 in the South, when the first seismic rumblings of the Civil Right Movement were just barely perceptible on the national Richter scale. Presented by the F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company at The Arsenal Center for the Arts, Black Box theatre, Watertown, under the direction of Joe DeMita, it is being given a spirited production. The cast lays bare their collective souls and gives forth rousing individual and collective performances.

Based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim," by Doris Betts, the story tells of a pilgrimage undertaken by Violet (Shawna O'Brien), a young woman accidentally scarred by her father, who travels southward to meet a televangelist who she believes can cure her and make her "pretty." From her tiny mountaintop hamlet in North Carolina to the segregated towns and cities on the way to Oklahoma to meet the preacher via an onstage Greyhound bus, she encounters an African American soldier, Flick (Kaedon Gray), his Caucasian Army buddy, Monty (Jared Walsh), who befriend her. She will meet a host of others, too, before the fateful encounter with the preacher and an inner-transformation that makes her realize that her scarred countenance ultimately can be healed from within.

With minimal props, a band that is concealed behind an onstage curtain, and the serviceable black box stage split into two distinct playing areas, we see Violet's past and present unfold. Young Violet (Kacee Staiti) is the first voice we hear, singing about the bucolic rambles of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, setting the scene that, we come to learn, soon reveals that not all is splendid in paradise.

Ms. Staiti, now her in her twenties, portrays a character much younger and does so with such sweet innocence and a voice that is heartbreaking. She is paired in many scenes Todd Sandstrom, who plays her father, and slowly, over the two acts, we learn how the fateful accident has occurred and what has prompted Violet to undertake such an arduous journey in search of healing.

The music, under the direction of Jose Delgado, emphasizes the flavors of that region and time, namely country, rock, rhythm and blues, and gospel. It is with the gospel selections that this production excels. All the tunes before seem to be preparing us for this lifting of the spirits, and the story, of a young woman's search for transcendence, also prepares us to be brought from our earthly roots to higher ground. Special mention must be given to the Gospel Soloist, Neila Mupier, whose voice and presence onstage in her purple robes, reminded this listener of the rapturous voice of a young Aretha Franklin, who, like many singers who came to prominence during the 1960s, had her roots in the music of the Church. Indeed, it was Aretha's father, Rev. Franklin, who insisted she perform for the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his many pulpit meetings. If there is a spirit felt in this production, it is surely Dr. King's, taking us back in time to the divisiveness that threatened to rip this country apart.

While Violet is not entirely color blind, she ultimately learns to be in the course of the play, and the kindness of strangers, to borrow a phrase from Tennessee Williams, helps her heal this prejudicial wound, too. The scenes when Shawn O'Brien, Kaedon Gray and Jared Walsh appear together and the young woman's attentions are being wooed by both suitors are notable for their freshness and immediacy and their treatment, directly and subtly, of the racial issues of the time.

Although the performers were miked, there were times when the onstage band overpowered them and the words were lost or indistinguishable. This is the only perceptible fault in a production that otherwise is a triumph.

It is in the stories of individuals like Violet, who made their own pilgrimages that provide us with a window into a time of turmoil that not only gripped a nation but threatened to strangle and extinguish its pulse. The horrid accident that left Violet scarred is a metaphor for this ultimate scarring of our nation. Both are healed, after much strife, by the curative powers of love. The cast, with high purpose and artistic focus, brings this message home. It is to the credit of the director, Joe DeMita, and the entire cast of Violet, that they are able to so with spirit, conviction and a rousing sense of life.

Violet continues through August 8, 2010 at the The Arsenal Center for the Arts Black Box, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, Massachusetts. For performance times and more information visit the Fudge Theatre Company website.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.