What, if anything, justifies a lie? Principle? Patriotism? Somebody else’s lie?
Such questions become more than philosophical when Bob and Barbara Jackson (Paul Haley and Denise Poirier) learn that their good friends across the street, Peter and Helen Kroger (Christopher Holt and Kathleen Kimball), are actually spies for Russia, in Hugh Whitemore’s 1983 drama “Pack of Lies,” which is based on a true story.
Brian P. Allen directs an A-list cast in a sharp, thoughtful Good Theater production, at the St. Lawrence.
It’s 1960, the height of the Cold War, and Bob, Barbara, and their teenage daughter Julie (Sophie Urey) are living a thoroughly conventional upper-middle-class life in West London. Steve Underwood’s terrific set design evokes both the era and the family’s comfort: a spacious living room with a dark wood bar and cut-glass decanters; a kitchen of Formica, chrome, and a box of classic Kellogg’s Corn Flakes on top of a period fridge.
Arriving to disrupt all this staid domesticity is an avuncular Mr. Stewart from Scotland Yard (Tony Reilly, in a slate suit, trench coat, and thick white mustache). Telling them only of espionage in their midst – and without yet mentioning their friends the Krogers – Mr. Stewart asks if he might use the Jacksons’ home as an undercover surveillance center. They can’t really say no, but the repercussions of their consent will be troubling, particularly, for Barbara.
We have a kind of spatially omniscient view of this house-turned-stakeout-base; the open-format set has great depth, with many a nook, hall, doorway, and stair that make the Jackson home as labyrinthine a place to navigate as the ethical quagmire under its roof – and all in plain sight.
As we first meet them in their home, Barbara and Bob are earnest, open, placid, and constitutionally guileless. When Helen stops by, early on, her presence in Kimball’s hands is like a loud and joyful bolt of yellow that spills everywhere and catches the family in her light. Kimball beautifully paints her as bright, charismatic, clumsy yet favored by gravity, and utterly irrepressible.
Young Julie (played with convincing curiosity and affection by Urey) gazes fondly at this brashly golden “Canadian.” And Barbara, we can see in her smiles, in how her speech flows easily and sonorously around her friend, loves and has something fulfilled in her by Helen.
But Barbara’s own dissembling must begin as soon as cheerful Mr. Stewart has set up two female agents – his “girls” – in the house. It’s a thrilling little jolt to see the contrast these women pose in the household, in fine, jaunty performances: Heather Irish’s quick, svelte Thelma strides purposefully through the rooms in tight pants, a mod-ish paisley shirt, and a black leather jacket, while Casey Turner’s trench-coated Sally glares and stabs the air with an umbrella. Barbara, meanwhile, wearing modest house dresses of the 1950s, moves with measured and tentative gentleness, with a smile that hopes the best of people.
Barbara turns out to be the play’s protagonist and moral compass, as the play’s central tension becomes less what happens to the spies (a foregone conclusion) than how she will weather the strain – and where she’ll decide to place her loyalties.
“People don’t stop being people because they’ve done something wrong,” Barbara says, perhaps the most complex ethical thinker in the show. In Poirier’s hands, Barbara is deeply sympathetic: gracious, kind, and dignified in her protests once she’s driven to object. As Stewart’s stake-out extends indefinitely, and careful, decent Bob (in a nuanced and understated performance by Haley) becomes more stiffly resigned, Poirier deftly lets us see the bending and vacillation in Barbara.
As the lies she is forced to tell become untenable, Poirier shows us a woman whose very constitution is rebelling and confounding itself. When Julie misleads her parents in a minor way about a boyfriend with a motorcycle, for example, the wild hurt of Barbara’s overreaction betrays an inner crisis over her own lies.
And is the casual bureaucratic duplicity of the crew from Scotland Yard any less ethically suspect or personally insulting than espionage, as Turner’s Sally rolls her eyes behind Barbara’s back with jaded disdain, but then turns on a bright fake beam of cheer, or as Mr. Stewart, for all his friendliness, continues to manipulate them?
As the action unfolds (at a pace that could perhaps pick up a bit at times), Whitemore also intersperses occasional monologues by the main characters from a later time, which are delivered by this cast with the candor, ache, and nostalgia of retrospection. These soliloquies help reveal their depth and the human element behind lies and principles alike.
As if remembering being spellbound, Mr. Stewart describes watching the flickering windows of the house that consumed him for months; Holt’s serious, intent Peter talks about being drawn into a Communist meeting in New York during the Depression, of hearing the ideas of Marx and Lenin, and finding there community and hope.
The human complexity at the heart of this show, beautifully rendered by Good Theater’s cast, ultimately shows the sad damage that lying can wreak not only on the deceived but those who do the lying. It’s no wonder, perhaps, that the most consummate liars manage to put their lies in a box, or else to convince themselves they speak the truth.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.