The 25th anniversary celebration for SpeakEasy Stage continues as it revisits Violet, a musical that producing artistic director Paul Daigneault first staged for SpeakEasy roughly 16 years ago. This isn’t just another production of Violet, though: Keeping in line with the theater’s mission of presenting Boston premieres, it is the revised, streamlined 2014 Broadway revival version of the show that will be seen in Boston for the first time.
Based on Doris Betts’ short story The Ugliest Pilgrim, Violet is the story of a young woman named Violet who, as a child, suffered an accident at the hand of her father that left her with a debilitating scar on her face. She thinks that her last chance at a normal life might be an evangelical faith healer that she saw on TV, so she sets out on a journey by bus from North Carolina to Tulsa in hopes that he can heal her scar. And, just maybe, one day she’ll be pretty enough for someone to fall in love with her.
With a stirring, memorable score by Jeanine Tesori (who won a Tony Award last year for Fun Home) and a gentle, incisive book by Brian Crawley, Violet first premiered Off-Broadway in 1997. Although it only ran for a month, the show quickly picked up leagues of fans and lived on in the form of a cast album. Only a few years later, SpeakEasy presented Violet to Boston audiences for the very first time.
In 2013, Encores! presented a one-night-only concert version of the show that ended up being the catalyst for the revival. Violet was a show that Tesori and Crawley had been eager to revisit for a while, though neither had any idea that the Encores! concert would be the entry point for the 2014 Broadway revival, which starred Sutton Foster and earned unanimously positive reviews. “It’s like that Valery quote,” said Crawley, “‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’”
The new version of Violet is about 25 minutes shorter than the original and plays without an intermission, a change that Crawley thinks improves the effectiveness of the piece.
Just as Tesori and Crawley revisited their show about 15 years after the original production, so too is Daigneault, who says that he chose Violet as a way to honor where SpeakEasy has come from and how far they’ve come. But revisiting a show with 15 years under your belt is bound to be slightly different. If age doesn’t necessarily guarantee wisdom, it does promise some experience.
Speaking of himself and Tesori, Crawley said: “We had kids, we raised them, we had families. The heart of what’s going on with Violet is what she’s dealing with between herself and her father. We were very much seeing everything through Violet’s eyes when we wrote it at first, because we were her age. We now have the perspective of seeing things through the eyes of the older characters as well. It’s an interesting way to look at it.”
“Just being older, I get the things that life throws are you more,” said Daigneault. “The triumphs and the struggles and the times when you feel that despair and darkness are taking over, or that there are too many roadblocks for you to be successful. Since I’ve lived longer, I find that I can bring that to the work. Also, I understand the idea of faith a lot more.”
One of the most satisfying aspects of Violet is its examination of faith. Violet absolutely believes that this faith healer can fix her appearance, though when she finally gets an audience with him, he isn’t at all what she expected. My initial reaction to the show was that it seems to be both an endorsement and a criticism of blind faith, and I asked Crawley if this was his intention.
“What I didn’t want to do was have a preacher that was nothing but a fraud,” Crawley said. “The evangelists, when you look at them, they’re fascinating individuals. They’re kind of like rock stars in their behavior and their clothing. They’re outsized personalities and they’re performers and they do some really outrageous things. Some of them, I think, are milking the public, but I think some of them are probably genuine in what they’re doing. They’re just doing it like someone who’s genuine that’s like Prince,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a mixed statement about religion. I don’t think she can get what she wants, but I don’t mean to negate the possibility of religion or faith.”
Daigneault agrees, though he has a slightly more hopeful take: “Violet would have never found her true self if she did not have unwavering faith,” he said. “Faith being something that we hold on to so we don’t have to look at the reality of life. I tend to look at things in a more positive way. Having faith in one thing and finding that it can be in something totally different is a way that I look at faith in this show. Through our beliefs we find our truth, whether it’s the truth we start the journey with or not.”
“We’re all on our own personal pilgrimages to find healing,” said Daigneault. “The scars can be physical, but most of them are metaphorical or internal. I think that Violet herself represents that in all people.”
VIOLET. RUNS 1.9-2.6 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY AT THE BCA, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM/VIOLET