By Tim Eberly
Actress Pam Veis had to dig deep to capture the persona of Claire Zachanassian, a cruel European billionaire and the central character in the Montana Actors Theatre's upcoming play, "The Visit," starting Thursday.
The ever-cheerful Veis, a psychiatric nurse at Havre's Golden Triangle Community Mental Health Center, transformed herself into a vengeful elderly woman who employs two servants to transport her around the stage on a sedan chair. She's been married nine times, and is missing her right hand and left leg.
"She's kind of the flip side to how I generally get up and face life every day," said Veis, who is also co-directing the play with Jay Pyette.
Set in the economically destitute town of Guellen, Germany, in the 1950s, "The Visit" stretches one's morality like a rubber band, testing whether it will snap back or break.
A longtime resident of Hamburg, Zachanassian returns to her impoverished hometown with a long-standing grudge, offering a $1 billion reward for revenge.
"She's willing to help her hometown, but day by day, she challenges the very structure of their society," Pyette said.
Written by Friedrich Durrenmatt, "The Visit" is a black comedy about greed that has been performed on Broadway and "in every major theater in the world," Pyette said. The president of Montana Actors Theatre, Pyette first saw the play in 1991 while studying theater in London.
The "visual impact of the play," Pyette said, is what drew him to perform it in Havre. Not to mention the tragic humor laced throughout the play.
"That's the kind of humor that I think most of MAT is attracted to," said Pyette, an English teacher at Havre High School.
"The Visit" will be the third of four major productions of the Montana Actors Theatre season. More than 20 Hi-Line residents are contributing to the production, which lasts about two hours and includes two intermissions.
The play will be performed on May 23-25, 30, 31 and June 1 at Montana State University-Northern's Little Theatre, which seats 140 people. Tickets, which cost $7 for adults and $5 for senior citizens and children, are available at Creative Leisure, Mel's Foods and at the door.
Growing up in Sunburst, Veis started acting at 12, aided by the support of a theatrical father. She attended Northern Montana College from 1981 to 1984, but had not acted for 14 years when she joined MAT in 1996. She has been a featured character in a host of MAT productions, but has never held a lead role while directing.
"I would relate it to having good (basketball) court sense," said Veis, a former basketball player at North Toole County High. "You have to be aware of what's going on around you at all times."
Pyette was not originally slated to play the lead male character, Alfred Ill, Zachanassian's former love interest who runs a general store in Guellen. Last month, the actor scheduled to play the male lead, Great Falls resident Justin Fatz, was offered a production management job on the set of "Northfork," a star-studded movie being filmed in Montana and featuring actors Daryl Hannah, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte and James Woods.
"We were so far ahead into the production that we were able to handle it," Veis said. "It did set us back a bit."
District Judge John Warner is making his acting debut with MAT. Warner is playing "The Doctor," a role he accepted after an actor dropped out three weeks into production.
In his first appearance for MAT, Rudyard resident Matt Tweedt will play "The Schoolmaster," one of Guellen's prominent citizens. Veteran MAT performer Martin Holt is slated to play "The Mayor."