The play, Frank Galati says, "shows that the unthinkable evil wrought upon the world is hiding in the heart of every human being."
Galati is talking about The Visit, the 1950s play by Friedrich Düerrenmatt that was turned into a musical at the start of this century by John Kander and Fred Ebb and that Galati is directing at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, in a production starring Chita Rivera. Previews began May 13.
The musical is part of the Signature's celebration of Kander and Ebb (Ebb died in 2004), which began with Kiss of the Spider Woman and has continued with The Happy Time. In addition to Galati, who won Tony Awards for his adaptation and direction of The Grapes of Wrath in 1990, The Visit's all-star creative team includes librettist Terrence McNally and choreographer Ann Reinking.
The play, Galati says, "has an extraordinary history. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne brought it to life in London and on Broadway." The musical, too, has an extraordinary — and difficult — history. It was planned for Broadway in 2000, starring Angela Lansbury (with Galati directing). But Lansbury's husband became ill, and she withdrew. Rivera came on board, and a production was scheduled for the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2001. "We were two days from beginning technical rehearsals. It was Sept. 11, 2001. The show opened. It was generally a success, but we couldn't get anyone from New York or California to see it. People weren't flying." In that climate, he says, "the whole idea of moving a very dark parable about human greed, the dark side of human nature," was difficult.
In 2004, George Wolfe, then the head of The Public Theater in Manhattan, was interested — but Wolfe left his job. Then Eric Schaeffer, Signature's artistic director, became involved. "And here we are."
What about The Visit has made Galati stick with it? "It sets up for the audience a ferocious formula for doom. It's about betrayal. In a certain strange way it explores the secret accord between government and the forces of evil. The play came not long after World War II. Düerrenmatt was Swiss, and the Swiss, who were supposedly neutral, were complicit with the Nazis. You could argue that staying out of the war is another way of fighting. The borders were closed to Jews who tried to escape."
In the play, the main character, Claire Zachanassian, returns to her hometown. "She has become the richest woman in the world. And she seeks vengeance on the man, now a poor, elderly shopkeeper, who betrayed her when she was young and pregnant — she was basically run out of town. The town is destitute, because she has bought up everything. She says she will make the residents, and the town, rich if they give her justice — if they murder the man. At first the town is horrified at this witch, this hag, of evil darkness. But gradually, they begin to get giddy and imagine their rescue from economic disaster."
This drama does what "only theatre can do — it sets a problem before the audience with which they can identify, and worry about what they would do if they were in that situation."
And this is a subject for a musical?
"It's the kind of dark world Kander and Ebb were so brilliant at roaming through, the way they did in Chicago and Cabaret. Both were set in worlds that involved murder and mayhem. So I think The Visit is the perfect Kander and Ebb musical."