U-M's Basement Arts theater troupe used "The Visit" to explore the dangers of group-think


Graphic for the Basement Arts production of The Visit. It features an image of Lady Justice wearing an mask with dollars in the place where her eyes should be.

Image courtesy of Basement Arts

It doesn’t take a genius—or a grand performance on stage—to reveal how people will do anything for money.

On February 25 and 26, Basement Arts, a U-M student theater organization, gathered at the Newman Studio in the Walgreen Drama Center and performed Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, which shows how far people will go.

First published in 1956, The Visit tells the tale of millionaire Claire Zachanassian who returns to Güllen, the small town where she grew up. Excited by her visit, the townspeople decide to take this opportunity to better their town and their lives as they’ve fallen on hard times. But Zachanassian has a different plan in mind: In exchange for a one billion dollar donation to Güllen, she wants the townspeople to kill Alfred, the man who she became pregnant with, then jilted her.

The Visit opens with the townspeople preparing for the arrival of Claire (played by Ashley Stewart-Smith). Alfred III (played by Sam Labovitz), Claire’s ex-lover from her youth, agrees to the task set by the mayor (played by Lewis Jackson) to convince Claire to make a donation to the town. Claire soon reveals her conditions of the donation and the mayor and the townspeople seem appalled, but Claire says not to worry, for she will wait. The rest of the play follows Alfred III as he becomes increasingly paranoid, up until the end when the shocking denouement occurs. With the stage level to the audience seating, the more intimate atmosphere raised the play's tension.

Chris Jensen, the director of The Visit, was intrigued by the play’s underlying theme that under capitalism, morality itself cannot exist and said in the program, “At best, our most sacred institutions are illusions to disguise selfish chaos. And at worst they are vehicles of greed maintaining inequity and injustice” (PDF).

Most of the characters don't have names and are only referred to with their job titles, further driving home the idea that humans are seen only for their capital, even within a small, closely acquainted town. Cast members, such as Sophie Thurschwell, played up to 5 different characters, all of whom end up embracing a disasterous group mentality despite their initial disgust. The play reveals the way identity becomes skewed and the townspeople are unable to fit their desire to live comfortably while retaining their morals.

Basement Arts is back in the swing of it this year, and their next performance is Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?; performance dates are still to be determined, but you can stay updated via the group's Facebook and Instagram pages.

Katy Trame is a student, poet, public library associate for Pulp, and music writer for The Michigan Daily.