Long Beach Playhouse’s Pack of Lies is the kind of play that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. It’s not only interesting, thought-provoking and well acted (the entire cast is exceptional, embodying their characters so naturally that it’s easy to forget they’re acting), it also confronts you with unsettling ethical questions. In other words, it’s the kind of play you always hope to see.
Based on the events that led to the arrest of several key members of the Soviet espionage network the Portland Spy Ring, the story is set in England between 1959 and 1960. Barbara and Bob Jackson (Michelle Miller-Day and Cort Huckabone), or Ruth and Bill Search in real life, allow the British intelligence agency MI5 to use their house to spy on their neighbors and friends, Helen and Peter Kroger (their aliases in the play and real life). The Krogers, aka Lona and Morris Cohen, were arrested in 1961 for espionage for sending the Soviets classified information on equipment the Royal Navy used during undersea warfare, including Britain’s first nuclear submarine. Lona and Morris Cohen, who had once worked with the Rosenbergs, were sentenced to 20 years in prison but were released after only eight years in exchange for British spy Gerald Brooke.
These events on their own are intriguing enough to be dramatized without much embellishment, which is what writer Hugh Whitemore did after being introduced to Gay Search, a TV reporter and Ruth and Bill Search’s daughter (or Julie in the play). In 1971, Act of Betrayal debuted on the BBC show Play of the Month. In 1983, Whitemore decided to dramatize the events further, and Act of Betrayal was retooled into Pack of Lies, with the original West End production starring Judi Dench. Four years later, it was adapted for American TV with Ellen Burstyn and Teri Garr starring.
The plot unravels in layers, with mundane realism slowly, and believably, eroding into suspense and philosophical uncertainty. It begins with the Jacksons eating breakfast and talking over each other. We’re quickly introduced to Helen (Harriet Whitmyer), who is as brash and funny as she is loving and lovable.
Her husband Peter (Alan Curelop) comes along a little later, amiably fighting with Helen while also asserting himself in a quiet way. Helen adores being Aunt Helen, pampering teenage Julie (Sierra Henderson) and serving as confidant whenever she can. This all goes to show that the Jacksons and Krogers are close, intertwined in each other’s lives in a comfortable and familiar way.
So the scene is set for Ms. Stewart’s (Susan E. Taylor) arrival. An MI5 agent, she firmly, and at times almost flippantly, inserts herself and her covert operations into their lives. She’s set on her mission and is all business. She lets the Jacksons know as little as she can get away with and still have them cooperate with her. And Barbara has trouble cooperating with Ms. Stewart almost right away, even though she usually prefers to keep her head down and follow the rules.
Barbara is the heart of the play– she cares for the people in her life as if it’s her job, and as a housewife, in some ways it is– and lies prevent her from doing her job well. Pretending nothing is wrong around Julie and the Krogers makes her physically ill. As the lies increase and the truth unfolds, Barbara begins to question her own loyalties and truths.
Sometimes it’s hard to know which side to be on, especially when the differences between the sides are not as discernible as we think. There’s our loyalty to our friends, the people we love and identify with, and our loyalty to our country, which is part of our identity. There’s the side that preaches equality and equal shares but practices overt violence and poverty, and the side that preaches equality but practices favoritism and violent poverty. When everyone thinks they live in the best country but the disparity between the rich and poor is growing exponentially everywhere, how different are we?
The characters in the play all have different opinions on equality and fairness. Bob is hesitant and conflicted but thinks they are ultimately doing the right thing by helping MI5 catch their neighbors. Ms. Stewart believes the right side is obvious and that justice is served when communists are stopped, while Agent Thelma, played with gentle kindness by Elspeth Carden, is more agnostic about it. She thinks good things and bad things happen and there’s no reason behind either. Speaking as the voice of the 1960s women’s movement, Agent Sally (Sarah Regli) disparages Barbara for being a housewife, equating her own job with purpose and equality. Meanwhile, we learn Peter discovered communism during the Great Depression, when homeless men lived everywhere in encampments and the government took care of no one.
True equality is about everyone having the support and opportunities to make equal choices. To some, that may mean a government ensuring that their citizens are equally cared for. Or it could mean choosing to be a housewife when you could have been a secret agent, with both jobs equally valued. True, Barbara didn’t necessarily choose to be a caregiver, but she likes it and does it well. Throughout the play, however, Helen, Ms. Stewart, Bob and Julie keep reminding her that she worries (cares) too much, almost as if implying caring is too much trouble, and ultimately, not good for your health. And isn’t that what this play is ultimately about? Who we as individuals and a society choose to support and care for?
Perhaps Barbara did care too much, but that’s only because others did not care enough. Perhaps if we all cared more about each other, there wouldn’t need to be a question of whose side we were on because we’d realize we’re all on the same one.
A Pack of Lies continues at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Saturday, March 24 with performances at 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2pm on Sundays. Tickets are $20 on Fridays and $24 on Saturday and Sunday and are available at lbplayhouse.org or by calling (562) 494-1014, option 1. The box office is open Wednesday through Saturday from 3pm to 8pm and Sundays from 1pm to 2pm on scheduled matinees.