by Martin Denton · January 11, 2015
Swimming at the Ritz is a marvelous showcase for the excellent actress Judith Hawking: her effervescent and deeply felt portrayal of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman is not simply a tour de force but a journey through a singular and singularly complicated 20th century life. I love the photo of her at left (by SuzAnne Barabas, who is also the play's director) because it gives a sense of how much is going on in this performance--control and command vie with vulnerability and surprise as this remarkable character (who was of course a real-life figure) ponders the ride she's been on during her 70-odd years on this planet, looking back on choices good and bad, brave and foolhardy, with insight but no regret.
It's a portrait of a survivor that's been etched by playwright Charles Leipart, and we understand this vividly from the very first moments of the play, as Pamela informs us that despite the fact that her (third) late husband Averell Harriman left her an estate valued at well over a hundred million dollars, she is virtually broke: the paintings and other valuable objects that fill her suite at the Paris Ritz (brilliantly rendered by set/properties designer Jessica Parks and properties assistant Donna Stiles) are about to auctioned off by Christie's.
What follows are a couple of hours of, mostly, reminiscence, as Pamela recounts for us the story of her life. It's an extraordinary tale: at 19 she became the wife of Randolph Churchill, son of Winston (he proposed on the night they met); in her 20s she was the sought-after companion (courtesan?) of Europe's richest men; in her 40s she was the wife of powerful Broadway producer Leland Hayward; and in her 50s she was reunited with the man who was, apparently, the true love of her life: Harriman, the immensely wealthy former governor of New York.
Pamela reinvented herself with regularity; she tells us that she found that her posture, accent, and even the pitch of her voice changed to match those of each of her lovers. And indeed, her life consistently seems defined by the men of each moment; as Pamela is the only female character in the piece, the Bechdel test doesn't strictly apply, but there's barely an anecdote here that doesn't revolve around her experience with one man or another.
There is another person sharing the stage with Pamela: an Italian valet named Pietro for whom she seems to have developed a certain maternal fondness. He's played by Christopher Daftsios, and while the character mostly seems to exist as a foil for the leading lady, he has some lovely moments (including a very funny and unexpected vocal impersonation of one of Pamela's famous male friends).
Mostly, though, Hawking's Pamela is playing very much to us, in the audience, and she wins our sympathy and affection despite the sometimes unattractive attributes of the woman she embodies here. She creates very much a complicated, multi-dimensional individual who is well aware of her strengths and weaknesses: a formidable and ultimately indomitable presence. She's very entertaining to spend time with. (And, as I was not particularly familiar with the real life story of Pamela Harriman, I left curious to learn more.)
New Jeresy Rep's justly acclaimed production values are all on view here: in addition to the aforementioned designers, there's expert work by Merek Royce Press (sound), Jill Nagle (lighting), and Patricia W. Doherty (costumes). They've created a suitably sumptuous environment for this tale of love, sex, money, glamour...and survival.