An actor playing a character saddled with a physical impairment is no easy feat, Daniel Day-Lewis be damned. For every one that transforms the limitation into a second skin, there are many who use it like a prop. Rather than incorporating it into the character, it becomes the character, rendering the performance more gimmicky than genuine.
The lead character in the musical Violet isn’t impaired, but she is disfigured, a hideous scar etched across her face, the result of a terrible childhood accident. Other characters blanch or shy away from her when they see her, and she has lived half her life staring into a mirror reflecting the revulsion of the faces around her.
Yet, the audience never sees the scar. It is constantly alluded to, and the young woman’s desire to be healed by a Bible-thumping televangelist sets the play in motion. But no makeup or costuming attempts to depict the scar; instead, it is up to the actress to somehow capture the physical and psychological toll. Fortunately, in this Chance Theater production of Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori’s 1997 Tony Award-nominated production, director Kari Hayter has found an actress capable of doing that. Monika Peña’s character name is Violet, but she is anything but a shrinking one. She is sassy, determined and headstrong, and rather than acting defensively or ashamed, she has turned years of jeers and shocked stares into a weapon of sorts. Yes, the scar is hideous, inescapable, and she wants nothing more than for it to be gone; but it’s there, and if you don’t like it, it’s more your problem than hers.
That makes for a powerful and moving performance, but it also points out a big flaw in this show: It’s too easy. Peña is not only a talented actress, but she is also—SEXISM ALERT!—a very pretty one, and that makes her literal and metaphorical journey in this play (kind of an ugly duckling not turning into a beautiful swan as much as accepting it) seem almost perfunctory. Of course, things are ultimately going to turn out okay for her. Pretty girls may dig graves, as Jack Kerouac once wrote, but this world being what it is, generally speaking, there are always other people around to dig those graves for them. While the audience is invested in Violet’s story thanks to the strength of Peña’s performance, it’s an investment that seems so much of a sure thing that little risk is involved.
Violet is a road-trip story set in 1964, complete with a Greyhound bus, roadside diners, seedy boarding houses, and two of the largest narratives of that decade constantly percolating and occasionally bubbling over: race and Vietnam. Violet (played as an adult by Peña and as a child by the very capable Rebeka Hoblik) has exhausted every medical and cosmetic option in terms of her scar. But she still needs to believe, and she finds that hope in the televised sermons of a self-professed healing man of God (a wonderfully manic Chris Kerrigan). She decides to catch a bus from the small town and small-minded folk of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, and travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she will meet Preacher and his healing hands.
Of course, other people find her pilgrimage (the story is based on Doris Betts’ short story The Ugliest Pilgrim) strange, if not laughable—most notably, two U.S. Army servicemen, Monty and Flick, who are on their way to Memphis, then to wherever duty calls. Monty (Jordan Schneider) is the strapping young warrior, dreaming of serving his flag in a foreign land he probably can’t even find on a map (it’s not even a real war, as he says at one point); Flick (Taylor Fagins) is an African-American who, while not disfigured, wears his own scar: the color of his skin (remember, this is the American South). The three strike up a bond, and with young people being young people, there’s drinking, dancing and boot-knocking.
The ensemble is graced with fine voices, the four-person live band plays the gospel/Americana roots-inflected score with gusto, and Hayter crisply moves the one-hour-and-45-minute show. But things never fully come together, a fault less of this production than the story. Many of the songs neither reveal character nor add to the story, the numerous flashbacks feel undercooked, and the shifting triangle between the three main characters seems too matter-of-fact. Again, while this is a story about the desperate quest of a young woman to feel “normal” again, there is very little in this play that seems abnormal (besides the riotously funny scenes during rehearsals for the televised sermon). So while the play talks a lot about heart and courage and conviction, that heart rarely gets the pulse beating. Things just feel too nice most of the time. And it seems like the concerns of Violet should make it more than that.
Violet at the Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (888) 455-4212; www.chancetheater.com. Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through March 4. $31-$45.