When Evil Pays: “The Visit”

First published: 11/1/2013

If you only watched the light-hearted beginning of “The Visit,” directed by Cole Lewis DRA ’14, you would never guess how messed up everything becomes when the play hits its stride. This tragicomedy, about an extremely rich woman who promises to revive Güllen, her dead-end hometown, if they kill her old lover, begins as one of those self-aware productions that can’t get enough of making you laugh at its overly theatrical nature. For instance, Güllen is made up of a set of dollhouse-like scenery, which the actors pick, stack together, and sit upon. We aren’t sure whether these props represent a location or are just a big collection of toys — look at how wacky we are, the performers seem to say.

But the theatricality turns sinister with the arrival of Claire Zachanassian, played by Mariko Nakasone DRA ’14. From the moment that she bosses around the train conductor who drops her off in the town, Nakasone emerges as the most energetic presence in the play. She is elegant, sexually teasing, and, when she reveals her proposal, threatening. But she is also sympathetic. Nakasone balances Claire’s thirst for vengeance with her lingering feelings for Alfred Ill, the lover who she intends to call a hit on. When Claire first reunites with him, you can see in Nakasone a desire to rewind time and forgive him. But Alfred abandoned her when she was young and pregnant. You can see the despair in her appearance — sunken cheeks, hollow eyes and a prosthetic hand — though shes covers it with anger and flaming red wig.

Alfred, portrayed by Chris Bannow DRA ’14, is less energetic but equally sympathetic. He has married a woman for money, though he no longer loves her. Because his family life is so unfulfilling, he starts to yearn for Claire, though he also must take responsibility for leaving her when she most needed him. I couldn’t help but feel dread as Claire’s proposal turned the townspeople against him and they began brandishing guns in his face.

While the play faults anyone who values material goods over humanity, it takes a particular interest in condemning do-nothing religious and intellectual figures. Once Claire promises money in exchange for Alfred’s death, the townspeople start buying on credit. The priest, portrayed by Christopher Geary DRA ’15, exchanges his sackcloth for a crimson cloak, expecting to be paid as soon as someone else kills Alfred. It is easy to scoff at him, but we cannot do the same with the conflicted schoolmaster, played touchingly by Mamoudou Athie DRA ’14. An intelligent individual, he suspects Claire’s motives from the beginning, tries to bargain with her and attempts to expose the town’s corruption to reporters, but, in the end, he abandons his decency for money. Like him, some of us assume that groupthink is only the affliction of the masses. The play gives us a reality check.

This production is so keen on proving how fallible we all are that, from the very beginning, the characters break the fourth wall and address the audience. The townsfolk instruct us to wave a flag or to cheer when Claire arrives, for instance. I thought this conceit was pointless until the townsfolk started to betray Alfred. Without thinking, I had joined into a mob mentality. I may not have been onstage with the characters that were plotting Alfred’s death, but I was a passive participant who indirectly supported their corruption and mindlessness. The play runs for a little less than three hours, which seems like a bit much, but this length allows the presence of evil in Güllen to accumulate slowly. The violence builds and builds until it’s too late.

The actions of the townsfolk alone are enough to convince us, in the words of the priest, that Hell is within ourselves; still, the lighting design of Caitlin Rapoport DRA ’15 and the sound design of Brian Hickey DRA ’15 sound design work together to emphasize this dark vision of human nature. At several moments, the front stage lights beam onto the players and throw threatening shadows on the walls behind them. These Expressionistic shadows, accompanied by screeching strings or discordant accordions, become players in themselves — embodying the growing darkness of the townspeople. It is the kind of obvious symbolism that you can snicker at, but the manner in which the shadows loom over Alfred is impressive and unnerving.

While “The Visit” does stumble upon its tonally odd beginning and long running time, it’s a production that both tells an intelligent story and makes the audience reconsider their own complicity. This is not just a play about a small town full of greedy people; this a play about how human beings systematically degrade each other. This is play about the kind of people who participated in such real life horrors as the transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust and the Abu Ghraib prison, where a cold, steady, illogical logic made evil easier than good.