'The Violet Hour' review: Engaging play blurs lines between the past and present
Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
At the end of Act I in Richard Greenberg’s thought-provoking chamber piece “The Violet Hour,” a major narrative switch is flipped that recontextualizes everything. It reveals the main characters, who exist in 1919, can see what’s happening in the future thanks to a mysterious fax machine that’s arrived without warning. What follows is an interesting dissection on greed, power, equity, and class in a tightly condensed two-hour package and The Dio has staged an exceptional production which complements the intimate, dine-in, setting they’ve all but mastered in the 10 years since opening. (This was also the first time I deviated from the ranch dressing that comes with the appetizer and, instead, asked for the raspberry vinaigrette and reader, it was delicious).
Greenberg’s text, and the way director Steve DeBruyne and crew have mounted it, draws parallels to recent release “Knock at the Cabin” wherein main characters are faced with an insurmountable decision and the effects of that decision are costly. “The Violet Hour” puts yourself in the shoes of budding, up-start publisher (and recent Princeton grad) John Pace Seavering (played here by Dante Justice) who finds himself in a prickly situation nobody would envy. The Great War has just ended, optimism levels are soaring around the country, he’s got the means to publish one novel and the two contenders come with heavy personal ties. One is authored by his college pal Denis “Denny” McCleary (Alexander Cousins) who lobbies for the bid in an attempt to show credibility on behalf of his lover, Rosamund Plinth (Lauren Landman) who’s parents expect the best. The second option is the autobiography of a gorgeous Black singer, Jessie Brewster (Ami ‘Amise’ McClenon), someone of whom John deeply admires, and may or may not be entangled with in a scandalous love affair.
Who to choose in this situation proves contentions and it’s not made any easier by John’s eccentric assistant, Gidger (played with spirited exuberance by Dan Morrison) who makes the startling discovery that this random fax machine is printing words from the future. Though it’s not the same as peering into a crystal ball as John wishes he could, the discoveries on these pages (which come by the bucketloads) offer a searing and spooky gaze into a future where it seems no decision is the right one.
Greenberg enjoys contemplating what it truly means to be present in the moment and the ambiguity that comes with making a tough, irreversible choice. Additionally, there’s some off-color racial remarks that could be sensitive to some patrons (it’s, however, appropriate to the era in which it takes place) not to mention some unease by the inherent racial dynamic about a white man holding his publishing power over a Black woman. Then again, a major point of the show is engaging with and/or understanding their context.
As John and Denny, Justice and Cousins make a suitable pair, finding the appropriate levels of befuddlement considering the circumstances. Cousins delivers a monologue in Act II that nearly blew the roof off The Dio and McClenon is a major powerhouse in her first play after making a successful career out of prominent musical theater roles. But there were elements of The Dio’s production that occasionally left me in a confused trance. Justice makes a believable, sturdy protagonist, yet the chemistry between him and McClenon was off during the performance I attended. And it seemed that, no matter the dialogue, the energies struggled to match the demanding moments Greenberg’s play calls for. It’s not enough to take the viewer out of the show’s grasp, but it does become noticeable during one crucial scene late in the production.
Still, The Dio’s show is outfitted with all the bells and whistles that make their shows singular. As usual, Matt Tomich handles most of the behind the scenes lifting with an award worthy set, lighting and sound design (the start of the show feels like you’ve stepped inside a hip speakeasy). Likewise resident costumer Norma Polk makes her stars shine, episcally Landman and McClenon who are dazzling to look at. Karen Dobson adds some umph as the assistant director and prop master Eileen Obradovich easily had the work cut out for her, having to amass and create what I can only assume was thousands of sheets of paper.
It’s all served, of course, with The Dio’s signature fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and honey glazed carrots that’s always worth the price of admission. Even if you don’t know “The Violet Hour” (it is being turned into a musical), the narrative is an introspective period piece which challenges and rewards the viewer. I left the show buzzing about its themes and ideas: pondering what I would do if given the opportunity to peek into the unknown certainty of my future. There’s real beauty (and comedic prowess) in the show’s language and how it treats the characters’ pursuits of happiness and although the show is set in the past, you’d be remiss to ignore the show’s contemporary worldview.
The Dio’s production of THE VIOLET HOUR continues through February 26th. All tickets include dinner, dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage. Reservations can be made by clicking here.