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When playwright Joanna Murray-Smith set out to write a taut battle of the minds in her new play, she chose as one of her combatants an actual novelist. Her play takes place in the home of novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), who was the author of many books, most depicting the character she became famous for, Thomas Ripley (The Incredible Mr. Ripley, etc.). Her very first novel, Strangers on a Train, was turned into a movie by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. The director's notes in the program describe the character of Ms. Highsmith as "anorexic, an agoraphobic, hardcore alcoholic, a lesbian, a dedicated chain-smoker, and a life-long depressive." Her portrayal on stage certainly confirms this diagnosis.
Murray-Smith's play, simply titled Switzerland, to which Highsmith was a self-exiled resident, is the subject of the newest play being performed at Theatre in the Park. A project of longtime TIP actor Lynda Clark, the play depicts just such a character as described above, as she is “accosted” by a low-ranking member of her publishing firm, Edward Ridgeway. He has come to get her to sign yet another writing contract, which at this point she is loath to do. The premise, at least during the first act of the play, is whether Ridgeway will actually be able to get her to sign it.
Clark has become a driving force in Raleigh theatre as she has become a triple-threat in the area as an actress, director, and instructor. In fact, she performs double-duty in Switzerland, being both lead actor and director in a two-person play. The only other person I have ever seen pull this off successfully is Ira David Wood III; and the play I recall him doing so in was a TIP production in which Clark played the other role. I confess I am still agog at the notion of someone directing a play in which (s)he has the majority of lines; the permutations, to this man's mind, are daunting to say the least. I am happy to say that Clark manages it nicely, resurrecting the spirit of her mentor as she barrels through this juggernaut of a play.
Patricia Highsmith (Clark), in the midst of a spell of writing, is visited by Ridgeway (Ira David Wood IV), who is there at the behest of his boss, Highsmith's New York publisher. He comes bearing gifts, though we do not learn of this until far into the first act. These items go a long way in softening Patricia to his cause, as one of the items demanded by Highsmith is a very rare and valuable dagger, which Edward had to take great pains to acquire. The fact that he has done so raises his stature in Highsmith's eyes; up until that point, she has considered him little more than a pest to be rid of.
Clark and Wood do battle on a set that is worthy of those constructed for a TIP production. Simple and elegant, the set consists of only three elements: the staircase stage left (and the entry to the home, behind and offstage); Highsmith's writing area stage right; and the central living area, in which most of the “battle” takes place, and which reflects most dramatically the setting, and the title, of the play.
The staircase only becomes a prominent part of the set at the end of Act I, but it does so in a play-altering sense; the living area, as well as being the prime setting for the verbal war between our two foes, also depicts, quite effectively, the setting for the play. Upstage center is a picture window, through which we can see the Swiss Alps and a lovely fjord. No other single thing cements our location better than this. Finally, and most spectacularly, Highsmith's writing area is evocative of a throne: it is mounted on a three-step high dais; it is littered with Highsmith's current and former manual typewriters, on which she hammers out her bestsellers; and it is festooned with five varied and shining swords, mounted on the wall behind her as she writes. This visual cue, establishing Highsmith as the queen of her genre, goes a long way in setting the ranks of our two foes. In this battle, New York's representative is a pawn compared to Switzerland's queen.
The interaction between Highsmith and Ridgeway changes only a little during the first act; but Ridgeway does, in fact, get her talking about the latest novel she is working on, what she intends to be the last, and best, work involving her villainous anti-hero, Thomas Ripley. This seems, to our eyes, to cause her to relent to Edward. She presents him with a challenge: if he, on the morrow, is able to give her the all-important means by which Ripley murders his victim in this latest scenario, she will in fact sign the all-important contract, which will give Edward the very impetus for which he is searching. He will have succeeded where all others have failed, in getting this pearl of a contract from a client whom everyone believes is recalcitrant and implacable.
Act I of Switzerland is a simple back and forth between two dug-in forces over a simple outcome. But having received his instructions on getting the win in this case, Edward retires to his guest bedroom upstairs, to study on his challenge and get some much-needed shuteye after his jetlag of a journey and day-long verbal combat. But his retreat does not end the conflict. Many hours later, after she consumes a modicum of liquid courage, Patricia ascends the staircase with the new dagger firmly in her grip, an act which ends Act I. Suddenly, everything has changed.
Theatre in the Park's presentation of Switzerland is a landmark production for two reasons: first, it cements Clark's place in the pantheon of Raleigh's theatre elite; and second, it recalls a production which was a feather in the cap of Theatre in the Park artistic and executive director Ira David Wood III, as he successfully managed to be the lead and the director in a play in which he carried the dominant role. That TIP and Clark were able to pull this off is staggering. This reviewer may only kneel in silent homage to what anyone else in Triangle theatre circles would consider an impossible feat.
Switzerland, with the final scene in Act I, changes drastically from a simple bargaining to a deadly rite. But the twists and turns do not end there. Oh, no. There is much more to come. But you will have to get your tickets to the show to see them; and believe you me, they are well worth the price.
Switzerland continues through Sunday, August 15. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.