By PAUL BATTERSON
Meg Chamberlain admits she didn't laugh during her first read through of the script for THE VISIT. Chamberlain and company present the dark comedy Feb. 28-March 7 at the Ohio State University's Thurber Theatre.
"When I went to the audition, I started reading the part for (director Lesley Ferris), she started laughing," says Chamberlain, who plays Claire Zachanassian in the show. "I thought that's weird because it was a dark show.
"There is a twisted sense of humor that runs through it from beginning to end. I'm curious to see how people feel when they walk away from the show."
THE VISIT, written in 1955 by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, is the definition of the word "tragicomedy." The play is set in the gloomy post-war town of Güllen, which means "to manure" in Swiss. With a dreary economy and a high unemployment rate, Güllen has lived up to its name.
Enter Zachanassian, a billionaire who is returning to her home town for the first time in 45 years. The town folk are hoping that Zachanassian will give the town an economic boost and send her former boyfriend Alfred Ill (played by Brent Ries) to convince her to donate money.
At a town meeting, Zachanassian announces she will donate a large sum of money to the town on one condition - that the people of Güllen kill Alfred.
"(THE VISIT) falls in the middle of tragedy and comedy," Ferris says. "The people of Güllen are extreme, over-the-top characters. When you realize that, you think 'Oh this is a comedy with a lot of physical humor.' But there is an undertow of tragedy and a deep-felt sorrow at the situation of these people who are poverty stricken. The challenge is having these comic figures express that through the course of the action."
At the center of the play is the relationship between Alfred and Claire. When Alfred betrayed Claire decades before, it set in course a series of actions that left her both rich and broken.
Ferris, who wrote ACTING WOMEN: IMAGES OF WOMEN IN THEATRE (Macmillan, 1990), says Claire is a fascinating character.
"She was treated badly by the town. Now she has the money and for the last 45 years she has been planning this," Ferris says. "It's the ultimate revenge of the jilted woman. But that revenge is tied to the bigger picture of the moral depravity in the town."
"I absolutely love (Claire) but I don't think most people would," Chamberlain adds. "She has this absolute righteousness about herself. She never second guesses anything she does."
In one moment, Claire indicates she still loves Alfred and in the next she talks about building him a mausoleum in Capri that overlooks the Mediterranean.
Ries says Alfred goes through his own emotional arc in the play. When the mayor (Patrick Wiabel) announces he would never turn against Alfred, a popular shop owner, the town people voice their support.
However, as it is revealed exactly what Alfred did to Claire, everyone including his wife (Sarah Ware), his daughter (Gabriela Lemus) and son (David Thill), slowly turn away him and toward the money Claire is offering.
"(One of the themes of the play is) the things we do in life can come back to bite us," Ries says. "He keeps going to all these people he thought were his friends. At every turn he realized he doesn't have any support, even from his family. (In the end) he understands his guilt but knows the town killing him will have more consequences than the decision he made 45 years ago."
Also featured in the show are Matt Yde (Claire's Husbands/Bailiff/Camera Operator), Aaron Michael Lopez (the Butler/Policeman), Corey Boyer (Toby), Jesse Massaro (Roby), Camille Bullock (Koby), Jane Elliott (Loby), Ware (Doctor), Thill (Conductor), Sifiso Mazibuko (Pastor), Melonie Mazibuko (Teacher), Daniel Shtivelberg (First Citizen), Alexis Nelson (Second Citizen), Caleb Inboden (Third Citizen), Kimberly Martin (Fourth Citizen/Journalist II), Colton Weiss (Painter), Ashton Brammer (Mayor's Wife/First Woman), Catherine Quamme (second woman), Jessica Hirsh (Train Supervisor/Journalist I) and Catherine Madden (Radio Reporter).
"I think the play's about really looking at decisions and revenge, holding grudges and being able to let go and finding out what one's purpose is in life but when it is too late," Ries says.