Doris Betts is one of North Carolina's fine authors, and she excels at limning the rich interior lives of people far from cosmopolitan centers, finding worlds of human wealth and complexity beneath skins and in situations lesser writers might dismiss, condescend to, or sentimentalize. Betts uses, when she writes — as the title of one of her novels has it — "the sharp teeth of love." One might not think of her work as readily adaptable to musical theatre, but Brian Crawley has written a fine, cliché-free book and mush-free lyrics set to Jeanine Tesori's solid score, and director Eric Woodall's cogent staging makes this version of Betts' story, "The Ugliest Pilgrim" a most satisfying evening of serious theater and good music at Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy.
Led by Lauren Kennedy as the adult Violet, the cast was fully there on opening night, and all were in fine voice — a necessity, since, although there is some spoken conversation, most of the show is sung. The basic storyline is one of the great ones: a transformative journey. Violet grew up on the mountain at Spruce Pine, NC. Her mama died young, and her daddy loved her and did the best he could. But one day, as he was chopping the wood, the axe head flew off and sliced through young Violet's face, leaving a deforming scar and ushering in a lifetime of cruelties. We learn the story through flashbacks to the younger Violet, beautifully acted by Mary Mattison Vallery, and her father, Dennis Delamar, whose warm voice and subtle acting make him highly sympathetic. (The scene in which he teaches his daughter to play straight poker, "so she'll have something to do with the boys" is by itself worth the price of admission.)
But now it is 1965, her daddy has died, she's tried all the doctors know, and Violet has determined to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, via Greyhound, to get her a miracle from a TV preacher. She has convinced herself that he will lay on his hands and God's grace will remove the scar that has twisted her life and left her lonely. She will be beautiful, with "a pair of Gene Tierney eyes, Ava Gardner's eyebrows" and a long list of other features collated from a rather diverse list of female beauties. Betts very gently probes the continuum of hope, faith and delusion here, and Crawley and Tesori participate fully in this physic neurosurgery. Lauren Kennedy is simply outstanding as the plain-spoken mountain woman who carries her hope before her like a lantern. Her face is scarred, her tongue is sharp, her prospects are bleak — but her heart is not shriveled to dust. Kennedy makes her live in a way that makes us admire Violet, at least as much as we pity her. (One oddity: no scar marks this Violet — we are left to imagine it out of our own fears. Clearly this was a directorial decision, but a little make-up wouldn't hurt.)
One hardly needs to comment on Kennedy's singing, except to say that here, where showy entertainment is completely beside the point, she delivers a beautifully textured and nuanced performance. She is abetted in this by all the actor-singers, but most especially by Melvin Tunstall, III, who plays Flick, one of the two soldiers Violet meets on the bus, and who are key to her ultimate transformation. His foil is Monty, ably played by Jason Sharp, but it is Tunstall's presence, physical dynamism and roof-raising voice that provide the force that really makes this top spin. The rest of the ensemble cast is also strong, but particularly wonderful — and kept from stealing the show only, I am sure, by strict directorial control — is the marvelous Yolanda Rabun, whose mighty singing voice is equaled by her natural comic talents. She plays several smaller parts, and runs with them all.
Chris Bernier's unfussy, well-functioning set and delicate lighting effects give the production a visual strength that serves the story well. We do not get to see the band — they are sequestered behind a curtain on a balcony — but we can hear them just fine. Individual singers are never overwhelmed, but when the whole cast and the entire band raise the volume at the same time, words evaporate into a great rolling emotional roar of sound, contributing to the unexpected, operatic, intensity of this highly musical piece of theatre.
Violet continues through Aug. 28. Except for a two-night concert event, this remarkable production concludes the season for HSNK. See the sidebar for details.