`The Violet Hour' is time well spent

Theater Review


Do you believe in predestination? Time machines? Intelligently written and acted plays?

Never mind if you answered "no" to the first two questions. The third describes director Kasi Campbell's production of Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour, which is receiving its regional premiere at Rep Stage in Columbia. Whether or not it changes your views of determinism or temporal dimensions, it's intellectually and emotionally stimulating theater - with a few laughs along the way.

Greenberg, who won the 2003 Tony Award for Take Me Out, is a writer with impressively catholic interests. Take Me Out examines attitudes toward homosexuality in Major League Baseball. The Dazzle, which Campbell directed at Rep Stage two seasons ago, is loosely based on the Collyer brothers, a pair of legendary New York packrats. The Violet Hour is inspired by editor Maxwell Perkins, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and singer Josephine Baker - with a nod to H.G. Wells.

The action takes place in 1919 on April Fool's Day. The Perkins character, here called John Pace Seavering (Ian Lockhart), has just set up shop as a publisher. His resources are limited, however, forcing him to choose between publishing a memoir written by his clandestine mistress, a black jazz singer (Deidra LaWan Starnes), and an ambitious first novel by a close college friend (Timothy Andres Pabon).

The complexities of the characters and their relationships would be adequate theatrical fodder on their own. But Greenberg adds an unexpected twist: A mysterious machine arrives at John's office and starts flinging out pages from books published in the future.

The characters react to this machine in disparate but telling ways. In the Zelda Fitzgerald role of the best friend's exuberant future wife, Megan Anderson dances and leaps while pages fly around her. Only two characters understand what the machine can do, however. As John's high-strung, flamboyant factotum, Bruce R. Nelson is catapulted into a frantic tizzy. Meanwhile, Lockhart's John becomes increasingly despondent and conscience-ridden.

Issues of conscience and ethics, more than science fiction or metaphysics, are at the core of the play. Ultimately, the playwright is less concerned with whether it is possible to alter the future than with the way individuals conduct themselves in the present.

These themes come through beautifully at Rep Stage - along with a great deal of fun. Just watch as Nelson's character suddenly and perplexedly finds himself spouting late 20th-century terms like "24/7," "bogus" and "dude" that have absolutely no meaning in 1919. There's a good deal of heart in the play, too, particularly when Pabon and Anderson's characters hurl themselves into a relationship that we know - and John discovers - will eventually be tinged with tragedy.

The Violet Hour, incidentally, is the title of John's friend's novel. It refers to twilight, or, as he puts it, "that wonderful New York hour when the evening's about to reward you for the day." This play - and Rep Stage's finely hewn production - is a reward in itself.


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