Since graduating from Oakton High School in 1998, Erin Driscoll has made quite the name for herself in theater circles around the DC area. She won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actress for Signature’s Urinetown and has delighted audiences in productions ranging from Into the Woods to Our Town to Cinderella.
Coming off a magnificent turn as Ellen in Signature’s Miss Saigon, Driscoll is taking on her biggest role yet, that of the title character in Ford Theatre’s upcoming production of Violet.
“This part kind of found me. I was asked to take part in a reading last year and I didn’t know the piece at all until then. It was awesome,” Driscoll says. “I really liked the character because she is imperfect and authentic and real. Many times women are perfect and dainty but she’s not any of those things—she has flaws just like everyone else. It’s fun to play a character like that.”
That reading, organized by Ford Theatre Society’s director Paul Tetreault, prompted Ford’s to quickly add the musical to its upcoming season.
With music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics and book by Brian Crawley, the musical based on Doris Betts’ The Ugliest Pilgrim tells the tale of a relationship between a physically scarred young white woman and a young black soldier on a journey in the deep south of 1964. It’s a touching story of love, hope and healing as this woman searches for a miracle.
“The show has so many things going for it. Not only is it about this woman but you have all these tensions—it’s set right after the height of the Civil Rights movement, there’s the Vietnam war, and so many different levels of what’s happening at this point and how everyone is dealing with those things,” Driscoll says. “In the first scene, my character meets Flick (Kevin McAllister) and being a black soldier and a white girl, but being in the south, lots of things come between us throughout the course of the show.”
Another soldier, the womanizing Monty (James Gardiner) is also along for the ride, and makes both characters question things about their lives and relationships.
For his part, McAllister welcomed such a strong lead role for an African American, which he says are few and far between sometimes.
“It’s an interesting role, especially dealing with the ideas of an interracial love; it’s the most challenging role I have done so far,” he says. “Musically, it offers so much. It has a lot of upticks of bluegrass, gospel, soul… and offers a lot of what musical theater doesn’t have nowadays and I think that really works well here.”
Jeff Calhoun, who won acclaim for directing the reinvented Big River featuring both deaf and hearing actors in 2001—which played successful runs at both Ford’s and on Broadway—is at the helm of Violet. Both Driscoll and McAllister describe him as “an actor’s director.”
“He allows you to play and make bold, risky, huge choices to figure out what works for your character,” McAllister says. “He’s one of the few directors I know that will let you say, ‘I have an idea,’ and believe that maybe that idea is better. He lets us ask questions and discover together.”
Plus, as Driscoll adds, “If your shoes hurt, he’ll let you take them off and rest your feet for a while.”
Violet premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1997 with a cast led by Lauren Ward and Michael McElroy. It was the talk of the town for a while, and among its accolades was winning both the Lortel Award and Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical.
Over the past 17 years, as Broadway has gravitated towards more commercial and storybook musicals, Violet seemed to have been forgotten in some theatre circles. That tide seems to be turning in 2014.
In addition to Ford Theatre’s staging from Jan. 24 to Feb. 23, a one act version will be heading to Broadway as the Roundabout Theatre Company welcomes Tony-winner Sutton Foster in the title role in a production booked into the American Airlines Theatre, March 28-Aug. 10, 2014.
“I’m excited that they think that this could be a mainstream Broadway show,” Driscoll says. “It’s not the typical thing you would see and it’s risky, but I’m happy they are doing it and it can only help our show.”
As Driscoll and McAllister were rehearsing for the Ford’s upcoming show, the musical’s book writer Brian Crawley stopped by one day and it gave the actors a chance to pick his brain a little.
Runs January 24 –
February 23, 2014
511 Tenth Street, N.W.
Tuesdays thru Sundays
“To have one of the show’s writers come by was amazing,” McAllister says. “I was able to talk with him and ask questions and delve into his mind a little about my character and his thought-process.”
Driscoll says she’s excited about returning to Ford’s stage, calling it unlike anything else she has done. “The history that’s there is amazing. It’s like a third character, always looming and gives everything on the stage a historical presence,” she says. “Violet is something that will move people and it’s a beautiful piece of theater with incredible music and I hope people are moved and affected by what they see.”
Don’t expect this to be your typical love story with happiness running throughout. The great thing about Violet is that it looks to speak for voices that aren’t always heard.
“I think it’s something that offers a new perspective of what theater can be. I think theater has evolved into what’s expected and I think Violet is one of those pieces that people don’t know and not something that is mainstream commercial,” McAllister says. “It gives you a whole lot of stuff to think about and to me that’s what’s exceptional about it.”
Kevin McAllister rehearsing “Let It Sing” from Violet