Actors and directors agree that it is particularly challenging to portray a real person. “Swimming at the Ritz” takes it so much further — a historical person “becomes real” for the audience during the play. This is what happened last weekend on the stage at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch, NJ, where it will continue to happen through February 1.
Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman is a name we think we’ve heard. Depending on how avidly we read newspapers, we may remember that Bill Clinton appointed her ambassador to France. We may even know that her first marriage gave Winston Churchill his first grandson, also named Winston, or that she married Washington insider Averell Harriman.
But there is no way we could appreciate the extent of her charms or the influence she wielded over men in powerful, moneyed positions as both paramour and wife — the “last courtesan” of her time — without the script of Charles Leipart, the direction of SuzAnne Barabas, and the astonishing embodiment of the character by actress Judith Hawking. Before “Swimming at the Ritz” we may have heard of Pamela Harriman; after the play, we know her.
Excellence begins with the selection of material, which explains why NJ Repertory has introduced so many plays that have gone on to other stages around the country and the world. “Swimming at the Ritz” is another American premiere.
Originality fosters success on the stage. Enter Christopher Dafstios as Pietro, the Italian valet and default confidant of Mrs. Harriman. The creation of this second character is a bit of genius. It adds dimension and interest to what is essentially a one-woman show without taking the focus for a single beat off the main character. Dance partner, conversationalist of few words, faithful witness, humble friend, with a face as expressive as a mime, Dafstios as Pietro makes Mrs. Harriman that much more real by his mere presence, just by how he listens as she moves around the room at the Ritz recounting for him and us the remarkable story of her life.
It’s hard to say enough about Judith Hawking. There is no real way to separate the script from the director from the actress, or happily, in this case, the actress from the historical figure. But it is the actress we see and hear; through her, we see the play. At one point, Mrs. Harriman tells us she is standing in one place, but she is also somewhere else. On a single night in a lavish hotel room, she travels to the places and times of her life; it is Judith Hawking who takes us by the hand and shows them to us.
The Mrs. Harriman the play gives us is a worldly woman who transitions the politics of personal interaction into official political capital; the actress makes this believable. “What Pamela knows would fill a book and a half,” the she that is Hawking and Harriman convinces us. What Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman most wants, she tells us, is to be remembered. This actress and this entire production won’t let her be forgotten.
“You know you’re very lucky,” she says to us from her room at the Ritz. “I’m sharing a great deal of myself.” Indeed you did. And indeed we were very lucky that you did.
Swimming at the Ritz – Written by Charles Leipart, directed by SuzAnne Barabas.
WITH: Christopher Daftsios (Pietro), Judith Hawking (Pamela Harriman).
Set design by Jessica Parks; costume design by Patricia E. Doherty; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Merek Royce Press; stage manager, Jennifer Tardibuono; technical director, Michael “Rusty” Carroll ; properties by Donna M. Stiles. At New Jersey Repertory Company 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ; 732-229-3166, njrep.org. Through February 1. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes. Thursdays, Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm & 8pm; Sundays at 2pm and selected Sundays at 7pm.