Idina’s at If/Then. Audra’s doing Billie Holliday. Kelli’s in Madison County. And Sutton’s leading Violet. This year has been full of Broadway’s starriest leading ladies taking to the stage once more and reminding us all of why we love them. I never know what to expect from Sutton Foster’s performances (she’s so amazingly versatile) but I, like most theatergoers, am willing to blindly follow her into whatever role she chooses. As Violet, a young woman whose face was disfigured in childhood by a loose ax blade, Foster gives a mature performance that shines despite its subtle severity. Foster delivers her lines with a quick sharpness that reveal the interior mind of a young woman who has had to reconcile herself to a lifetime of loneliness and unfairness. Yet, she’s never unnecessarily bitter or angry. Perhaps that is because Violet still sees a glimmer of hope in her future. She leaves her small hometown to seek out a televangelist to heal her. Not only does she want him to get rid of her facial scar, she’d also like to get some perks in the process– Grace Kelly’s nose and Ava Gardner’s eyebrows, for example.
It was a little hard to believe that a woman with Violet’s attitude and experiences would fall for Hollywood beauty standards or for the razzle dazzle of a tv preacher, but her susceptibility reminds us of two things:
1) Violet is from a southern small town in 1960’s America. Add to that, she’s Catholic. It’s no small wonder she can have a one-night stand without free-falling into shame. Her scar lets her get away with some proto-feminist actions (she plays poker with the guys and doesn’t need to exhibit traditional domestic femininity because she isn’t exactly an object of desire around town), and yet, Violet is still a woman of her times. For example, she unwittingly insults black soldier and fellow traveler Flick (Joshua Henry) when comparing the scar on her face to the color of his skin.
2) Violet might have learned to live with her scar, but that doesn’t mean she has learned to love herself. What she is a well-built defense against all the inappropriate questions, the gasps, the stares, the teasing, etc. But a good defense mechanism does not equal confidence. It does not equal self-love. It does not equal acceptance.
One of the (few) things I liked about this musical is that Violet is not perfect. She’s not this remarkable wise-beyond-her-years woman who sees through the bullshit of the beauty industry. On the other side of the spectrum, she’s not this super-jaded misanthrope who only see the world’s injustices. She is a real, complex person, and what real person in this world can’t do without a little more self-love?
Here’s the thing though– Violet’s journey is NOT a journey to self-love. It is NOT a journey to acceptance.
Let me take you through the
pretty lame and predictable ending. Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. Violet finds Mr. Preacher Man and realizes that he’s basically Raul Esparza from Leap of Faith, except more self-deluded and more indifferent. I’m sorry if my reference to that ridiculous show made you cringe. Anyways, Violet sort-of hallucinates into thinking that God cures her face and meets up with one-night-stand soldier (Colin Donnell) to show him her new face. He tells her the truth, and Violet breaks down in despair. Then, Flick arrives and professes his love to Violet. Violet…loves that he loves her? Violet asks him what he sees when he looks at her and Flick…kisses her to avoid responding? Crick. Crack. And Stella gets her groove back.
Okay so that was a very cheeky summary, but it was pretty much my experience of it. The point is Violet’s happiness remains completely dependent on how other people validate her. Her newfound hope lies solely in her new relationship with Flick. Nowhere does this ending show Violet taking steps to self-love. Nowhere does Violet address how she will continue to see herself. While it’s nice that Flick and Violet fulfill each others’ needs, Violet’s happiness is entirely dependent on it. And just like those magazine photos of Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth, Violet’s beauty is only validated by how other people see her. Putting forth a romantic relationship as the answer/culmination of Violet’s journey provides only a superficial resolution to Violet’s self-image.
On a side note though, I do want to express how much I appreciated another character’s emotional journey in dealing with the same traumatic experience. A better example of what the struggle to self-acceptance might look like is Violet’s father (Alexander Gemignani) , who appears in flashbacks. When a young Violet (Emerson Steele) confronts him with accusations that her disfigurement is all his fault, that he could have done more to help her, Father responds with an extraordinarily vulnerable and insightful message that I immediately identified with: For everyday of her childhood, he did what he could do. Instead of wallowing in guilt and resentment, placing hope in unrealistic expectations, and reliving the experience everyday just with one look at her face, he took steps. Small steps, but steps nonetheless. He fed her. He clothed her. He taught her to be independent and confident. He greeted her with a smile. We immediately see that Violet is not the only one who must deal with the daily resonances of her disfigurement. Her father has had his share of suffering too. And as anyone who feels like the world is crumbling around them will know, sometimes just getting out of bed is accomplishment enough.