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The Magical Realism of Renaissance Theaterworks' 'The Violet Hour'

Apr. 11, 2017
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Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour graces the stage of Renaissance Theaterworks with a profound yet playful exploration of 20th-century history, the power structures of relationships and the nature of time itself. The story tracks John Pace Seavering, a young publisher finding his feet in 1919 with a difficult choice before him: Given his very limited funds, should he publish the memoir of his secret lover, black jazz singer Jessie Brewster, or the sprawling novel of his college friend, Denny? Both relationships hang in the balance. Enter a device that tells the future. Although it at first seems nothing short of a deus ex machina, John and his feisty, downtrodden employee Gidger must grapple with the realization that knowing the future does not necessarily yield useful guidance in the present. 

The formidable strength of Greenberg’s writing lies in its fast pace, plethora of witty aphorisms, knowledge of American history and layered comedy. Although scene shifts are sometimes abrupt and the details of the story’s ending are difficult to track, one never loses interest in how John and Gidger will navigate their increasingly complex reality. The obscurity of Greenberg’s conclusion may, in fact, reflect the deconstruction of time and the tremendous strain of the human mind to comprehend it.

Exceedingly fine performances from all actors under Suzan Fete’s direction help ensure our ongoing investment. As Seavering, Neil Brookshire is a bit mature for the role, but his gravitas fits well a character frequently described as more staid than the rest of his set. Milwaukee favorite David Flores is an unstoppable force as Gidger, who delivers many of the script’s funniest lines with perfect timing and incredulity. Flores also does a nice job balancing the buffoonish side of the role with the real pathos that underlies a sympathetic character wanting only to be remembered and spoken to with respect. Marti Gobel’s Jessie Brewster conveys a remarkable gamut of feeling and experience. As she has done many times before, Gobel demonstrates her ability to juggle a character’s complex backstory with the needs of her present, treating the audience to that rare view of an actor who has done all the preparatory work but is nonetheless wholeheartedly in the moment from curtain to curtain.

As Denis, Nicholas Harazin is a bundle of nervous energy oscillating between idealism and despair. As his heiress fiancé, Rosamund, Cara Johnston compellingly portrays the way many women sought power within the patriarchal setting: through seduction, both literal and figurative. Johnston is interesting for her portrayal of mental health issues as well; as the story develops we learn that she is a woman of tremendous strength nevertheless poised on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Production elements are subtle and understated, aptly creating ambiance and a sense of period without over-narrating at any point. Of particular note is the New York cityscape beyond the window of Seavering’s office; in Steve Barnes’ scenic design, this element is the only one that is somewhat abstract. The city looks just the slightest bit fuzzy and dreamlike—especially when Noele Stollmack’s lighting plot places it in the titular “violet hour” before dusk—aptly supporting the magical realism that increasingly defines the story.

Through April 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit r-t-w.com.

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