Terra Nova Theatre Group is breaking new ground. It’s offering a play as well as play readings in Pittsburgh, starting with a script, Violet Sharp by founder/artistic director Washington & Jefferson College theatre professor William Cameron. Since 2007 productions had always been in Washington County while this play actually premiered in Los Angeles in 2009. It also won the 2007 Julie Harris Playwriting Prize.
I’d call it a significant docu-drama, one with, in this instance, thoroughly skilled, truthful acting by a mostly Pittsburgh cast.
This goes into the story of a real woman, Violet Sharp, who worked as a serving maid for the Morrow family where Anne Morrow Lindbergh was living there with her husband Charles when their baby was kidnapped and murdered in 1932. In this shocking and world-famous crime Sharp became one the suspects, especially given that her alibis were questionable. The play, much of it based on original statements, letters, police and news reports, follows Violet in and out of intense interrogations as well as in and out of fragments of her life within the household before and after the crime. A newspaper reporter named Adela provides background narration.
Cleary Cameron has done extensive research to create this script telling Violet’s story in a way to show how the confused woman became a kind of victim herself. For many of us, most of what he portrays will be a revelation; probably few people these days have even heard of Violet Sharp. Cameron as writer and director tells the story well in frequent, fast-paced intense scenes. He and actress Theo Allyn succeed in clearly conveying Violet’s several kinds of innocence along with her self assertiveness and bewilderment. A sympathetic, totally convincing portrayal.
The other characters, by comparison, look more like sketches from a dramatized TV documentary. Yet, the actors all bring something to the roles to give them personality, even if the writing gives them little. Among them, Sam Turich makes police captain Harry Walsh believably relentlessly harsh while, as Charles Lindbergh, Tyler Scherer gives him a fine sense of patrician dignity. And John Michnya makes Morrow household butler Septimus Banks convincingly snotty. Narrator/newspaper reporter Adela is played by Allison Cahill, portrayed to suggest satire, which distracts from the other more straightforward, not stylized interpretations.
This polished production does credit to everyone in it while telling us some American history most of us may have overlooked. It reminds us that innocent people accused of crimes may be exonerated but their lives can be forever damaged by those who exploit and degrade them.
Terra Nova Theatre Group’s production of Violet Sharp continues through June 25th at the Grey Box Theatre in Lawrenceville, 3595 Butler Street. There are also free play readings there June 13th to 15th and June 20th to 22nd. Tickets through Pro Arts: 412/394.3353 or proartstickets.org and more information at firstname.lastname@example.org