Photo by Joye Goldschmid
House arrest: Mr. Stewart (Michael Champlin) doesn't get along with Barbara (Celia Maurice) and Julie (Denise A. Berumen).
An ordinary home is turned upside down in 'Pack of Lies'
By Marianne Messina
ALTHOUGH TRUTH may be stranger than fiction, it is not always more interesting, a fact evident in Pack of Lies, the Palo Alto Players' production now running at the Lucie Stern Theater. This British docudrama by Hugh Whitemore, set in the early '60s, starts with the relationship between neighbors, an average row-house family, the Jacksons, and a slightly more vibrant couple the Krogers. Rule No. 1: If you're aware that your characters are "dull," don't give them such long speeches. The Krogers seem to be a sort of "window into mischief" for the Jackson couple; Helen Kroger (Jackie O'Keefe) drinks a bit much, likes a good time and is very solicitous toward Barbara Jackson (Celia Maurice).
When Mr. Stewart (Michael Champlin), a Scotland Yard type, appears in his trench coat, he prevails upon the Jacksons—Rich Dymer plays husband Bob—to let him set up a lookout in their house. At first Mr. Stewart claims to be investigating the comings and goings of a third person who he has reason to believe has been frequenting the Kroger household. And from there the play's tension centralizes in the relationship between Helen and Barbara, leaving their respective husbands basically as foils.
Barbara goes along only under duress as Mr. Stewart installs his female lookout, Thelma (Tiffany Chamberlin), in the Jacksons' daughter's room. As the arrangement grows more unbearable, Barbara becomes more estranged from her friend, and we watch her go to the edge of her limits again and again. Maurice brings us a heartbreaking portrayal of Barbara Jackson. Growing ever more tightly wound, Maurice's Mrs. Jackson carries her stress in her side glances and a pursed-lipped determination, offering tea repeatedly, almost as a ritual balm for the world's impinging ills. When the character finally does lose it, Maurice has earned every decibel. She's almost excruciating to watch.
O'Keefe's tall redheaded Helen comes over as louder, more cheery, more brassy, more "fun" than her neighbor. And Barbara seems to want those qualities in her house. But as the show makes clear, Mrs. Jackson is displaced from her own home by intruders. Thelma is joined in the surveillance op by Sally (Dana Brambley), and the second act opens with Thelma and Sally having tea in Mrs. Jackson's bright kitchen (complete with stove and refrigerator), while Mrs. Jackson is nowhere to be found.
It's as if the Jackson home is overrun with mice. Judging from Kuo-Hao Lo's set design, something's been nibbling at this cutaway house. The upstairs bedroom is cut very short, coming to an edge that seems to have been scalloped under the influence, before it drops off—hopefully the actresses using that room, Chamberlin, Brumley and Denise A. Berumen (who plays the teenage Julie Jackson), are not acrophobic. Everywhere a wall is cut away, Lo has left an irregular pattern behind. As the designing Mr. Stewart, Champlin appears more accessible than your average government intelligence agent, but just as irritating in his dismissal or at least deprioritization of Mrs. Jackson's feelings.
Champlin makes his Stewart amiable, but it's also clear that Stewart navigates the human climate like a pilot navigating the weather—lots of care and planning but little emotional investment. The home-invasion aspect of this play seems to dominate the issues around lies and espionage, possibly because the characters and plot hold few surprises. And there is never an exchange between Helen and Barbara once everything is revealed. The scenes where each character gets a narrative moment in the spotlight seem quite expendable. With few insights or surprises, the story may be past its expiration date and is best enjoyed as a sympathetic character study. But the acting from the Palo Alto players, English accents and all, made a superb run at the material and managed to transport us into Mrs. Jackson's unexceptional shoes—a not fun place to be.
Pack of Lies, a Palo Alto Players production, plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm through Feb. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $24/$28. (650.329.0891)
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