SAN DIEGO — When does a lie become justified?
That is the sticky issue explored by Hugh Whitemore's "Pack of Lies," which opened last week at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre.
Based on a true story from the early '60s, the play examines the pressures put on a middle-class British family whose best friends and neighbors, Helen and Peter Kroger, are suspected of being Soviet spies. The drama is reportedly more fictionalized than Whitemore's earlier teleplay about the incident written for the BBC.
"Pack of Lies" is focused, not on the accused, but on their neighbors, Bob and Barbara Jackson and their teen-age daughter, Julie.
All the action takes place in the Jacksons' comfortable home, where British government investigators have set up a surveillance post in Julie's bedroom, slowly persuading the reluctant family to become more and more a part of the net that eventually snares their best friends.
Directed by Will Simpson, the Gaslamp production is strong on acting detail. The subtlest movements, the most meaningless domestic tasks, are precisely timed and executed to support the script's demand for tension and suppressed feelings.
Scenes seem to unfold in real time, with the cast freely taking as long as necessary to wash something at the kitchen sink, or adjust themselves in just the right armchair, or deliver the right facial response to the steadily growing stress.
When we meet the characters, the boisterous Helen (D'Ann Paton) and quiet, bookish Peter (Sean Flannery) are loudly surprising their mousy neighbor Barbara (Lynn Tanner) with a birthday present--much to the embarrassment of the Jacksons, since the birthday isn't until a week later. Whitemore provides just enough information to reveal the closeness, particularly the friendship between Helen and Barbara.
As Bob Jackson, actor Navarre Perry rivets the production solidly to the floor. He knows exactly how this quiet, ordinary man would respond to the jarring intrusion into this domestic stability of a government agent, Mr. Stewart (Paul L. Nolan), and the gradual revelation that his friends of many years are suspected criminals.
Tanner is just as convincing as Barbara. She would love to refuse Stewart's thinly veiled "orders" that she give up part of her home, her privacy and her friendship with Helen to become an accomplice--not in the commission of a crime, but in an equally devastating commission of "justice."
Young Julie, played with steady confidence and a special spark by Nicole Bonsall, is largely kept in the dark about her "Aunt Helen" and "Uncle Jack." This adds to the burden of lies that weighs heaviest upon Barbara. Bob's reaction is more subtle as he finds that he has no voice to protest against this "civic duty," this outside force that is suddenly dictating the moral stance the Jacksons must take.
Nolan is ruthless as Stewart, as layered with deception as his prey. He is polite and tries to be charming, but there is no concealing Stewart's steely determination to carry out his duties. Nolan does a nice job of making his character despicable, which reaps the harvest of cynicism Whitemore intended toward bureaucratic institutions that leave large gaps in society where there should be humanity.
Paton's deceptions, as Helen, are bolder, painted on so thickly that we can see their falsity--as we must for the plot to work. We can see right away that she is American, not Canadian as the couple insists, and that her friendship with Barbara has the edge of underlying self-interest.
Flannery's character is revealed best when he has his turn at one of Whitemore's frequent asides, which allow each of the main players a chance to give his side of the story. Flannery evokes the needed sympathy as he explains the humanitarian pull that involved Peter, and eventually Helen, in the American Communist Party during the Depression-battered '30s.
Laura Ganz and Susan Herder do their work as Thelma and Sally, the agents planted at the upstairs window, with so much clinging concern for the Jackson family that it underlines the irritation their presence causes.
There is no mystery in Whitemore's plot, despite the tense piano interludes added by sound designer John Hauser. The play heads straight into the complete disillusionment that settles on everyone but Stewart. Whose "rightness" is more right? And who decides? These unanswered questions ticking away keep the play moving.
While "Pack of Lies" sings one note, Simpson's meticulous direction and Robert Earl's attractively detailed set, Matthew Cubitto's clever lighting, Dianne Holly's costumes and strong acting all around make the Gaslamp production something special.
"PACK OF LIES" By Hugh Whitemore. Directed by Will Simpson. Executive producers Kit Goldman and Abbe Wolfsheimer. Settings designed by Robert Earl. Lighting by Matthew Cubitto. Sound by John Hauser. Costumes by Dianne Holly. With Nicole Bonsall, Sean Flannery, Laura Ganz, Susan Herder, Paul Nolan, D'Ann Paton, Navarre Perry and Lynn Tanner. Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through Dec. 20 at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, 547 4th Ave., San Diego.