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[whitespace] Kelli Maguire

Poker Faces: Kelli Maguire (center) ups the ante on the friendship between two soliders (Jonathan Rhys Williams, left, and Michael Gene Sullivan).

Inner Beauty

A woman tries to surmount the superficial in TheatreWorks' 'Violet'

By Heather Zimmerman

AS IN MOST ROAD-TRIP STORIES, in Violet, it's not the destination, but the journey that matters, although getting there isn't always half the fun. TheatreWorks presents the Northern California premiere of the popular off-Broadway musical, which was adapted by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley from Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim." The action, set in 1964, centers on a young woman, Violet, with a disfiguring facial scar who journeys from her rural North Carolina home to Oklahoma to be healed by a televangelist. The play extends the story beyond its original conclusion: Violet's arrival at the televangelist's chapel. Unfortunately, padding it out only dissipates what little dramatic tension this tale of the inevitable had. In walking us through each step on Violet's road to a personal epiphany about inner beauty--and there's no doubt that she'll have one--the musical seems to offer a re-enactment of a familiar story rather than any kind of revelation.

When she boards a Greyhound bus bound for Tulsa, Violet (Kelli Maguire) encounters a microcosm of the newly desegregated mid-1960s South. Symbolically complex is the friendship between two soldiers whom Violet befriends on the bus: a white enlisted man, Monty (Jonathan Rhys Williams), and a black sergeant, Flick (Michael Gene Sullivan). In Violet, the smooth-talking Monty sees a chance for an easy roll in the hay, which rankles Flick as his friendship with Violet grows increasingly intense. In aligning Flick and Violet, the play examines the absolute absurdity of judging people on outward appearance, especially as Violet's own prejudicial comments to Flick--perhaps even more hurtful because they were unintentional--underscore the comparative severity of all the cruelty Flick has faced. The tenuous romance between Violet and Flick is arguably the least-predictable element of the play, and the best.

But if most of the tale seems formulaic, the music matches. Tesori's somewhat uneven score offers a few standout songs. Though there are hints of blues and country in much of the music, it's the numbers where Tesori makes unabashed use of those genres that are the best, rather than the half-hearted riff or wayward twang present in many songs. The by-now much-abused style of overlapping vocals muddles a lot of the lyrics; apparently it doesn't really matter anymore what the chorus is singing. Among those who can be heard, Sullivan's steady, rich voice balances Maguire's dynamic, if occasionally overwrought, tones.

Violet does a serviceable job of delivering a familiar story with an old but still timely moral. But if anything, Violet is an off-Broadway show with just a little too much Broadway in it, never delving far enough below the surface.

Violet plays Tuesday at 7:30pm (except Nov. 7); Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (plus Oct. 30 and Nov. 6 at 2pm) and Sunday at 2 or 7pm through Nov. 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View; $20-$37; 650.903.6000.

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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