Richard Greenberg's “The Violet Hour” begins as one of those insufferable office comedies of the early cinema, the kind of exaggerated, vaudevillian contrivance one might expect to find in an early Harold Lloyd talkie. In 1919, a newly declared publisher, John Pace Seavring, is trying to sort out volumes of paper in his messy office while his comic sidekick, a supercilious twit named Gidger exclaims his hysterical frustration with the tyranny of paper and the arrival of some sort of new-fangled mechanical device that threatens to spew out reams more. Seavering has almost nothing to say in the first scene, while Evan Whitfield plays Gidger so over-the-top that it becomes an uneasy balance between the ridiculous and the uncomfortable. One begins to suspect that this play will be a dreadful evening of period irrelevance decorated with theatrical cliche and simplistic conflict. Oh, so wrong.
In fact, “The Violet Hour” is one of the most surprising, intriguing and ultimately satisfying new plays I've seen in some time. A strong cast, led by Rita Giomi's confident and sophisticated direction, leads us through a first act that gradually becomes more interesting, characters growing more complex and engaging, and then smacks us with a second act that is so unexpected, so textured and intricate that everything that has preceded it comes into focus and perspective, a perspective all about time and the individual's understanding of choices and consequences in shaping a future.
That machine out in the hall begins to print pages of history, a history of the unlived remainder of their century, a history of what may or may not happen to all of these characters depending on their actions in their present. Is it prognostication or speculation or fiction? Can their free-will direct their destiny? Do we ever understand the present in which we live, and can we ever make a choice in that present knowing that it will have a particular outcome? These stagy comic types come to seem very much like us, like very real individuals, and their antique modernity is clearly what our world becomes. Our time is what their time leads to, just as our time is the future we will eventually create. Most remarkably, Greenberg makes all these rather substantial questions feel unforced and readily accessible, and the script carries its depth on an agreeable froth of good humor.
A good part of the success of this production goes to fine performances. Shawn Law is rock-solid as the publisher, John, a man who begins as pure intention and ends with the grace of personal responsibility, and a clear appreciation of the limitations of will. John has a clandestine relationship with a “dusky” cabaret singer named Jesse, and that character, a woman somewhat older and significantly more worldly than John, is played with honesty and excellent proportion by Amber Wolfe Wollam. Her insistence that John recognize the reality of their place in a racially unjust world and that she have the opportunity to tell her own story makes their relationship the most compelling in the play. Law and Wollam balance each other beautifully, their intimacy both believable and difficult, and their scenes together are the most convincing in the play.
Evan Whitfield molds the silly Gidger into a man of some dignity, a man who comes to terms with his own position in the world and develops into a person of dignity and authenticity, not through radical transformation, but through simple growth, through maturation. Eric Reidman played Denny, a writer more enthusiastic than talented, whose crates of manuscript he wants his old college chum, John, to publish. That, in large part, to win the romantic interest of a rich young heiress, Rosamund. Shanna Allman didn't quite have the polish and sophistication for Rosamund, but she did make us sympathetic to her impoverished life in the midst of great wealth. Reidman's development of Denny, inconclusive as the ultimate outcome may be, made Allman's Rosamund feel like a more understandable object of his desire, a poor choice made for the wrong reasons and leading to mutual dissatisfaction.
“The Violet Hour” is that suspended moment in the early evening when the light becomes soft and forgiving, a tenderness marking the transition from day to night. Bernard DeVoto defined it as, “... the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow again and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen magically along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn.” For the period of this play, that brief moment between the end of World War I and the Great Crash, all of these people are granted a glimpse of that unicorn and all of them are changed in ways that we, with the unfocused lens of our own time, must ultimately identify for ourselves. It's a beautiful, touching and imaginative play and Seattle Public Theatre has given it an excellent production.
PICTURED ABOVE: Paul Bestock