Pack of Liesby Hugh Whitemore. Directed by Roseann Cane.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Paul Murphy, Cathy Lee-Visscher, Johnna Murray, ChristineLee Mackerer, Mike Sanders; photo: Daniel Region
". . .cover a multitude of sins."
It’s almost as though we’ve been waiting for it to happen. Since October, 1999 when Johnna Murray first stepped onto the stage at the Ghent Playhouse in Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical "Follies" there has been this sense of expectation growing inside each and every audience member at that small, community theater. She has rarely disappointed on any level and yet it is not until this production that she has achieved anything like that special impact she handed us back in 1999.
"The winner in the plot/song sweepstakes, however, is Johnna Murray as Phyllis. From her first entrance to her final exit, hers is a moving performance, taking the audience through a gamut of emotions, thrillingly portraying a woman who has lost herself on life’s journey." That was what I wrote of her then. Remove the word "song" and change the character’s name to Barbara and I could be writing those same words again about her remarkable performance in Hugh Whitemore’s play "Pack of Lies" once again on the stage of the Ghent Playhouse.
In this play, based on real people and events, Whitemore tells the story of a suburban London couple whose home is used as a watchtower for a suspected Russian spy working in London. What Barbara and Bob Jackson do not realize when they agree to allow a team of "watchers" use their home is that the true target is the couple across the street, supposedly Canadians, who have become their own best friends. Based on a real spy couple, Morris and Lona Cohen (she originally came from Adams, MA) Helen and Peter Kroger are the targets of an investigation of the Portland Spy Ring which has penetrated the Royal Navy. During the weeks it takes to complete the investigation Barbara Jackson is transformed from a simple British housewife who studies painting in the evenings into a highly nervous, thoroughly miserable, mostly paranoid bag of bones who snaps, snarls, and faces her own future with a new understanding of the baseness of the human condition.
"What is the difference between one lie and another?" she asks late in the second act as she has had to assume the role of liar in order to protect herself from revealing what she knows to her best friend who is the subject of the investigation. Murray’s handling of this role, as she quivers, quavers, wavers, waffles, blows up and sings Christmas Carols with her family and friends while unable to utter a single honest word, is just brilliant. She follows Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris and Ellen Burstyn in the role. She proves herself their equal as her hands clench into fists that won’t stay closed and her fingers twitch and her neck contracts and her feet seem unable to follow a single direction or pathway. Her monologue and follow-up tirade in the second act are akin to a Verdian Aria/caballetta combination - one long and drawn out with a growing hysteria followed by a short scene and then a high-pitched harangue. From that point onward it is clear that Barbara cannot last out the play. Brava, Johnna Murray! If we had Tony Awards in the Berkshires or the Capital District, this year’s would be yours.
Mike Sanders plays her husband with a civility that begins tranquil and becomes chilling as the evening progresses. His character’s need to remain controlled lasts even into his final, tear-inspiring monologue but underneath it there is the emotional horse-cart of a traveling peddler. We can feel the need he is unable to bring to the surface through the finesse of his performance.
Cathy Lee-Visscher plays Helen Kroger, the American woman under suspicion, without subtlety and without deviousness. She is the brash twentieth century ex-patriot who lives at the top of her energy and her wits. In her drunk scene her Helen almost gives away her real self, but Lee-Visscher holds together the Helen Kroger act with strength and stamina. It’s a memorable performance of a role that never was given the same attention that the author gave to Barbara.
Her husband is played with an open hand and a sensitive face by Paul Murphy who endows Peter Kroger with a reality that is almost haunting. There is no pretense about this character. He never lies because he almost never says anything and when he does speak in a scene he is always himself, always candidly in place. In his private moments, his audience-directed monologues, he is more casually open about himself and Murphy takes these moments seriously, using them to expand our understanding of what goes on underneath the surface.
ChristineLee Mackerer plays Julie Jackson, the teenage daughter of Bob and Barbara and she does just fine in the role. Arielle Lant is one of the two women we see who’ve been assigned this case, who come and watch. Her scenes are well played.
The same, and more, can be said for the role of Thelma as played by Christina Smith. Once again Whitemore has not given this character much to play with, and yet in Smith’s hands we come to understand the lower echelon government official who may not share anything but who longs to be able to do so.
Mr. Stewart, the man who masterminds the government plan to capture spies, is played here by Glenn Barrett who makes the man into someone intensely interesting. Patrick McGoohan played the role on Broadway in 1985 and Barrett, in his own way, clearly equals that more familiar actor’s achievement, making Stewart an enigma who breaks through his own intransigence to reach a humanity in himself that should not be logically exposed.
Roseann Cane, the director of this production, has drawn from her actors everything the play requires to be successful. She has shown a clear understanding of the period of 1960-61. She has found the British qualities and the American qualities that physically define the characters. She has used her actors as the pawns they must be in the larger game of governmental manipulations. Her vision of the play is clear and her delivery of that vision is ideal. This is a triumphant piece of work for the director.
Bill Visscher has created a perfect British parlor and kitchen in his set. Joanne Maurer has helped to define both period and character in her costumes. Grace Fay has delivered well with her lighting, never a mis-step in placement or that sense of time, place and season.
As fine productions go in this region, "Pack of Lies" has been given just about the best of everything and it shows. If the final ten minutes of the play don’t have you near to tears there is something wrong with you and not with the product presented to you. This is one of the finest pieces of theater in the region this spring.
Pack of Lies plays at the Ghent Playhouse, located on Route 66 in Ghent, New York through April 1. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-6264.