When actors James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Norton take the stage in the Broadway adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men  at the Longacre Theater, they share it with a geriatric—though spirited—co-star. Resting comfortably on a quilted pillow for much of the show is Violet, a deaf, 14-year-old Pit Bull.
Because Violet, who plays ranch hand Candy’s (Jim Norton’s) dog, has a wandering eye and has become fast friends with fellow cast members, she is banned from the green room. Instead, she shares a dressing room with Lydia DesRoche, an NYC dog trainer—and the first female dog trainer on Broadway—who has successfully taught her when to walk onstage and where to sit for the seven minutes she appears during each performance.
“Violet’s task is to connect with Jim (Candy),” DesRoche says. Based on his dapper looks, DesRoche’s own 15-year-old Pit Bull, Blue, whom she rescued as a puppy from a junkyard in Harlem, was originally cast in the part. He was replaced by Violet, his understudy, one week later, when he repeatedly missed his cue to get up from the makeshift Depression-era pillow he was parked on for the show. (Offstage, Blue, now the understudy, and Violet occupy the same, large, pillowy bed. Even though there are two, they prefer to share.)
In the play, Candy’s dog is unnamed, but both he and his dog have outlived their usefulness on the ranch. “The other ranch hands lack sensitivity towards animals; the dog has no purpose and therefore, they want to shoot her,” says Norton, an Olivier and Tony award–winning Irish actor and dog lover who has raised his own Boxers in Ireland.
“Because Violet’s deaf, she always looks at you very intensely. Her deafness enhances her ability to concentrate, to pay attention,” he says. “We’ve done 23 shows, and as it comes to the moment when Joel [one of the ranch hands] takes her away from me, each time she looks at me more intensely. Dogs are so perceptive. They have qualities we don’t know about.”
A veteran stage actor, Norton admits to being more calm and “very relaxed when on [stage] with Violet. They [dogs] live in the moment. It’s interesting to observe how content they are to sit.”
Although Norton was raised with dogs in Dublin, he had never before acted with one. “Star quality is the ability to displace air,” he says. “Babies and animals are not aware of how attractive they are. They don’t try to get attention, so everybody’s drawn to them. Actors can learn a lot from Violet. She takes the spotlight because of her stillness. Everybody’s looking at her.”
Violet was given up by her owners to Brooklyn Animal Care and Control, one of the city’s kill shelters, in 2011. Then, her name was Cheyenne and she was about 10 years old. She was also emaciated, had an abscess on her neck (most likely the result of a dog bite) and her ears had been unevenly cropped close to her head. Despite that, she was sweet-tempered and became a favorite with the shelter staff.
“She had the most pleading eyes,” says Christy Allen, who had owned a Pit Bull before she adopted Violet. Allen, with her 10-pound Miniature Pinscher, Bella, in tow, took the subway from their home in Central Park West to the shelter in East New York. The next day, she brought Violet home. Allen and DesRoche are neighbors, and when Allen needed help with dog training, she called DesRoche.
I work as a vet in city shelters, and can testify that Violet’s adoption was nothing short of miraculous. Geriatric dogs in general are harder to place than younger, healthy ones, and dogs of any age surrendered by their owners do not require the same mandatory five-day hold in the shelter as strays. They can be euthanized to make space. However, dogs are kept longer if they endear themselves to the staff and are healthy. Violet’s flirtatious “eye,” sweet demeanor and sheer luck saved her life.
There is also, of course, the stigma that Pit Bulls carry. Nationwide, approximately 75 percent of all Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixes who wind up in shelters are killed. Some cities and countries have Breed Specific Laws (BSL) that ban outright the ownership of Pit Bulls. Denver, Colo., is one of them; Ireland, Jim Norton’s home, is another. “They’re so gentle and so sweet,” he says. “It’s awful the way they’ve been abused and used as aggressive guard dogs. It’s a problem of our making.”
At every show, DesRoche is stage left. Violet’s deafness spares her the loud gunshot in each performance, but it also deprives her of the audience’s applause. The trainer continues to work with Blue in the event he’s needed as an understudy and, thanks to her positive reinforcement training methods, he’s now getting up on cue. “They never stop loving to learn,” she says, observing her ancient dog’s newly found youthful spirit.
Of Mice and Men is due to run through July 27, 2014. In between shows, Norton spends downtime with Violet, enjoying her company. “When the show’s over, I’ll miss her terribly.”
Photo by Richard Phibbs