She has come back to her hometown with an empty coffin — and will not leave until it is filled.
After a lifetime away from Güllen and now a gazillionaire, Claire Zachanassian (Katherine Ferrand) has returned to the place where she lived until she left in disgrace at 17. Now nearing the end of her life, with a bum leg and a hand that was crushed in an accident, she’s bent on justice and tying the knot back home with her eighth husband.
Claire is the gravitational center of “The Visit,” Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 revenge fantasy that opened Frank Theatre’s 30th season over the weekend. It’s a play from another era but with contemporary echoes. Spiteful and still hung up on every bad thing that’s ever happened to her, Claire bends a whole community to her desires, corrupting pillars such as the minister (Vinecia Coleman), professor (Heather Bunch) and mayor (Gary Briggle).
Director Wendy Knox’s production of “The Visit” is set amid the exhibits and steam engines of the Minnesota Transportation Museum, which underscores themes in the show. Designer Joseph Stanley’s scenography is not so much a set as an installation that uses the train cars and the engine grease to evoke the milieu and enrich the production.
Knox uses a dark palette (Michael Wangen did the lights and Kathy Kohl the costumes) for a woeful story. Claire wants the head of her youthful sweetheart Anton Schill (Mark Rhein), who impregnated her as a teen then abandoned her. And she is willing to pay the town, which has mysteriously fallen on hard times, one billion Deutsche marks for it.
Ferrand is witty and indelible in the lead role. She commands the stage with droll wit and understated steeliness. Sometimes just an ice-in-the-veins look suffices.
Rhein’s Anton is more pathetic than sympathetic. You don’t ever want to encourage a character to be killed off, but Anton’s self-pitying sappiness makes that call easier.
Briggle’s charismatic mayor is imbued with cherubic glee in an effective production with evocative crowd scenes.
Dürrenmatt’s imaginative play has been adapted into opera, film and a John Kander and Fred Ebb musical that had a short Broadway run in 2015 headlined by Chita Rivera. It’s easy to see why so many artists love it. The morality tale is rich in metaphors, as evidenced by this translation by Maurice Valency (Tony Kushner is reported to be working on his own version). It also speaks to timeless issues.
Claire is an extreme version of all of us who carry our histories with us. And for her, that baggage is not just memories, but people. Her retinue includes a butler who is the town’s former chief magistrate. And two men who were witnesses against her in her trial are now her singing eunuchs.
The play also asks, what is our price? Sure, we have principles, but if the right offer comes along, how will the mayor and the rector and priest behave?
Near the end of “The Visit,” Claire speaks to Anton as if she wants to take him on vacation. “I shall take you in your coffin to Capri,” she says to her onetime lover. “You will have your tomb in the park of my villa, where I can see you from my bedroom window. White marble and onyx in a grove of green cypress. With a beautiful view of the Mediterranean!”
It’s one person’s vision of paradise, and a window into the scary human soul.
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Who: Written by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Directed by Wendy Knox.
When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 21.
Where: Minnesota Transportation Museum, 193 Pennsylvania Av. E., St. Paul.
Tickets: $22-$25; franktheatre.org.