Frank Theatre has been working for years to stage Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit (1956), but when the long-awaited show opened on Friday night it felt so extraordinarily timely, audience members gasped at lines that could have come straight from Twitter. That sounds like a good thing. It might not be.
Regardless of timing, the strong production is a reminder of why audiences have supported Wendy Knox’s scrappy and ambitious company for three decades. The Visit is a fine example of Knox’s work mounting intelligent but accessible shows, often in unusual venues.
Located in St. Paul’s historic Jackson Street Roundhouse, the Minnesota Transportation Museum serves as a repository for numerous train cars that Frank audiences are encouraged to explore during intermission. It looks and smells like the depot it is, perfect for a story that centers on momentous comings and goings at a small-town train station.
The titular “visit” is actually a homecoming for Claire Zachanassian (Katherine Ferrand), a fabulously wealthy woman who grew up in the town of Güllen. Local residents hope that Claire will invest in the failing local industries and revitalize the economy; she in fact promises to do so, but her seeming generosity comes with some strings attached. Those strings lead threateningly to Anton (Mark Rhein), the beau of her youth, who’s now settled down as a married shopkeeper.
In the high Brechtian style that’s a Frank specialty, The Visit is an eerily surreal spectacle—particularly at night, with empty trains stretching away into the darkness behind weird characters like the blind, keening duo of Koby (Mohamed Yabdri) and Loby (Gabriel Murphy).
Wardrobe plays a starring role in The Visit: Anticipating that Claire’s conditions will be fulfilled, townspeople start buying expensive clothes on credit, an ominous development for Anton given what the visitor has in mind for him. The stunning work of costume designer Kathy Kohl is reason enough to see this production.
Ferrand and Rhein are both good, although they miss opportunities to evoke the long-roiling emotions at the dark heart of their affair. This Visit is really about the townspeople, and it’s there that Knox shines with her sprawling cast. Among the standouts are Gary Briggle as a dithering mayor; Carl Schoenborn as an imposing butler; and Allison Witham and Sulia Rose Altenberg as Anton’s humorously impatient children.
Anton has severely wronged Claire, Dürrenmatt establishes, yet the play also questions whether Claire goes too far in bringing the full fury of the town upon Anton’s head. If public outcry over youthful abuse actually sounds pretty damn justified to you right now, you may need to wash The Visit down with Mixed Blood’s cathartic Is God Is. Dürrenmatt’s play wraps male privilege into a moral puzzle, but this production arrives at a time when the wrapping might just need to come off.
Minnesota Transportation Museum
193 Pennsylvania Ave. E., St. Paul
Through October 21; 612-724-3760