Though Flannery O'Connor once referred to the South as "Christ-haunted," no single geographical region—or faith, for that matter—has truly cornered the market when it comes to the extremes of spiritual longing.
New England's Shakers embraced their deity in the seizures that gave them their name. In the Appalachians, a Pentecostal Holiness sub-sect still believes that God commands them in the Book of Mark to drink poison and handle venomous snakes.
At first the mind reels when asked to imagine a human need so desperate—or, perhaps, so nihilistic—that only regular encounters with diamondback rattlesnakes and strychnine can mitigate it. But in the musical Violet, the title character draws near to it when she says she has "a need so giant I could force Him into action, a need so giant that God could be invented right there on the spot."
That's one big need. At the outset of this sometimes discerning adaptation of Doris Betts' "The Ugliest Pilgrim," Violet believes that need is to have a disfiguring scar miraculously removed from her face by a faith healer she's seen on television.
The time is September 1964. Convinced that she's one Greyhound bus ride away from what she calls "my healing," Violet dismisses, apparently without irony, her "superstitious" hometown of Spruce Pine, N.C., and begins her pilgrimage to Tulsa, Okla. (It can't be a coincidence that Tulsa was also the longtime headquarters of the famous faith-healing televangelist Oral Roberts.) After whimsically ordering the facial features she wants to be granted in the song "All To Pieces," Violet meets a series of passengers, including two military men who become inextricably bound up in her fate.
Since theater is so preoccupied with issues involving belief—usually the audience's—it's interesting when the subject matter turns to belief as well. As the plainspoken and steel-willed Violet, Lauren Kennedy displays musical theater chops and down-home bona fides. Under Eric Woodall's direction, Violet's gumption (and her studied nonchalance around a deck of cards, gratifyingly enacted in the Dixieland near-fugue "Luck of the Draw") is contrasted by unguarded moments in which she seems to be peering, tentatively, into her future face.
Jeanine Tesori's score and Brian Crawley's libretto touch bases among country, folk and rhythm and blues. "Raise Me Up" is a rewarding mid-show rave-up indulging local hero Yolanda Rabun as an über-enthusiastic gospel choir leader. Elsewhere, though, Violet's songs tend to collapse certain dramatic plot points (as in "That's What I Could Do") while needlessly drawing others out. "Let It Sing" was a didactic, rather lengthy set of pilgrimage instructions by commanding officer Flick (an otherwise moving Melvin Tunstall III), before a reprise of "Anyone Would Do" mostly seemed a tacked-on afterthought to close Act 1. In their midst? The thin lyrics of "You're Different," the bewildered musings of Monty (Jason Sharp), a paratrooper and potential romantic interest.
While Chris Bernier's lights give dramatic impact to Memphis club scenes, his bare-bones set gets maximum mileage out of a brace of vintage suitcases, which turn from bus seats into a memorable pulpit during Violet's confrontation with the televangelist.
David McClutchey makes a striking preacher as he veers from self-righteousness to something more jaded—and faded—as their interview continues. Kennedy convincingly climbs the walls of desperation before conveying her desolation in "Look At Me." These moments reward before the criminally compacted denouement and resolution of "Promise Me, Violet" and "Bring Me to Light."
With plot developments veering between fast-forward and slo-mo, the miracle in Violet is the degree to which it still works. Credit the chemistry of Tunstall and Kennedy—and Woodall's direction and Jay Wright's unshakable band—for smoothing out many of the bumps.