Even in a pack of lies, truths can still be found, though they might not always be pleasant. Betrayal? Decidedly unpleasant. Loyalty? A mixed blessing. Trust? A commodity with limited shelf life. These are the lessons in Hugh Whitemore's Cold War drama, "Pack of Lies," now onstage in a slow-starting but ultimately gripping production from the Vienna Theatre Company.
The play is based on the 1961 arrest of a husband-and-wife Soviet spy team in England. Americans Peter and Helen Kroger appeared to be a typical suburban couple, but they were sending secrets to the Kremlin with the help of another spy. British intelligence agents enlisted the Krogers' friends and neighbors, Bob and Barbara Jackson, to help them catch the spies.
Imagine the mixed emotions that must have been at war within the psyches of the Jacksons: uncertainty about the government's allegations conflicting with their Cold War fear of the Russians, loyalty to their government at odds with their devotion to their friends. Not to mention the difficulty of carrying on a perfectly normal-sounding conversation when your neighbor unexpectedly pops in and the agent camping out at your home is forced to jump into the loo, or bathroom, to hide.
The Vienna Theatre Company's version is set in a 1960 American suburb, an "Ozzie and Harriet" world where father relaxes after work by replacing his suit coat with a sweater, keeping the tie tightly knotted, and gripping the evening paper in one hand and a drink in the other. Mother always appears dressed to visit the local country club, even if she has just scrubbed the oven. Their teenage daughter is requisitely fresh-faced and perky.
In fact, director Chuck Whalen has created an image of wholesome 1960s domesticity so cheerfully bland, including a nicely detailed period home interior, that for a while the play seems more like a sitcom parody than a drama. Part of the fault lies with the void in Whitemore's script, which meanders at considerable length before getting down to business. It is not a particularly well-written play, and only the skills of the director and his eight-member cast turn it into something worth your evening.
Local theater newcomer Tom Pentecost, in the role of Stewart the G-man, and Denise Marois, as nervous Barbara Jackson, whose home is used by government agents, keep this play anchored in reality, their nuanced and effective performances vividly highlighting the conflicting emotions and values exposed in such an undertaking.
Pentecost, tall and clean-cut, ably conveys the stereotype of one of the boys in J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, exuding absolute certainty and confidence as he cleverly and relentlessly bends Barbara Jackson and her family to his will, adding a slight edge to his voice whenever they appear to waver. In the role of Jackson, Marois seems to shrink as guilt and ambiguity about the mission nag at her, exacerbated by having strangers in her orderly home. By Act 2, she has the appearance of a whipped puppy.
As husband Bob Jackson, Ron Field maintains the easy self-assurance of a comfortable suburbanite, the value of the couple's patriotic deceit never in real doubt in his mind, even as he grows concerned about his wife's increasingly fragile emotional state.
Lori Muhlstein offers a multifaceted performance as Helen Kroger, the breezy and foul-mouthed spy, allowing us occasional glimpses of the stone-cold resolve beneath the cheerful facade.
After the flat first half of Act 1, the cast begins to create a spell of mounting emotional intensity that is unfortunately kept from its full potential by the playwright's decision to have climactic moments occur offstage, denying us some of the dramatic payoff these actors were building toward.
"Pack of Lies" continues through Oct. 30 at the Vienna Community Center, 120 Cherry St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday. For tickets, call 703-255-6360. For information, visit www.viennatheatrecompany.org.