Playwright: Music by Jean Tesori, book and lyrics by Brian Crawley
At: Griffin Theatre Company at the Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: $42. Runs through: Jan. 13
The sight greeting us upon our entering the Den's second floor auditorium is that of a plain wooden bench occupied by a shabbily dressed young woman with the face of an Appalachian angel. Soon after the play begins, however, we are directed to visualizewithout the aid of masks or makeupher fragile countenance distorted by a hideous scar sustained during a childhood accident involving an ill-secured axe-blade.
This is important, because unless our imaginations can call forth this phantom manifestation, we will have no explanation for Violet's determination to ride the Greyhound from her home in remote Spruce Pine, North Carolina to the teeming metropolis of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in search of the televangelist preacher whom she believes can miraculously make her whole. Once our powers of empathy make that leap, though, we have no difficulty picturing, on our stage's bare walls, her odyssey's rural bus depots, roadside diners, juke joints, ramshackle hotels and miles of Blue Ridge Mountains.
We don't have to do it all by ourselves. Our access into the world described by southern storyteller Doris Betts, where ugliness can be worn both inside or out, is facilitated by the intimacy of our loft space and Brian Crawley's unassuming adaptation of his source material, but what ensures our rapt attention every second of the 100 minutes necessary to recount Violet's journey of discovery is Jeanine Tesori's winsome score. So swiftly is the emotional connection between actors and audience forged by the rousing ensemble-harmonies of the opening song "On My Way" that, by its final notes, we are ready to follow our intrepid heroine ( played with luminous radiance by Nicole Laurenzi ) wherever her adventures may lead.
These encompass a saga offering the full spectrum of human experience within the microcosm of the strangers she encounters in the course of her pilgrimagenotably, a pair of likewise rootless GIs bound for duty in a remote foreign country called Vietnam. ( This is 1964. ) Griffin Theatre Company has long championed stories of humble citizens embarking on expeditions fraught with false promises and spiritual risk, but LaShera Zenise Moore's stirring rendition of Tesori's righteous gospel hymn "Raise Me Up" more than affirms our faith in the rewards meted out to the pure in heart.