Review: In the black — and the blackness — with Aurora’s ‘Creditors’

by Lily Janiak, February 2, 2019

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Not only is it possible to feel delight and disgust at the same time; it’s possible to have each feed off the other.

The proof is in Barbara Damashek’s direction of “Creditors,” seen at Aurora Theatre Company Friday, Feb. 1. With the precision of a stylus and the wallop of a bludgeon, August Strindberg’s 1888 play — here in a new version by David Greig — etches the worst of human nature: sniveling or manipulative, dissembling or weak.

Jonathan Rhys Williams and Rebecca Dines in Aurora Theatre’s “Creditors.”Photo: David Allen, Aurora Theatre

It’s love triangle as loathing triangle, set at a seaside resort bled of color (Angrette McCloskey did the scenic design, lit with unforgiving iciness by designer Jim Cave). Gustav (Jonathan Rhys Williams) seethes with a vindictiveness unalloyed by compunction, a vindictiveness that insists on its uncomplicated darkness. Tekla (Rebecca Dines) flits and flounces, feasting on sources of flattery and pleasure. Tekla’s second husband, Adolph (Joseph Patrick O’Malley), absorbs it all like an empty receptacle, a quivering inchoate blob that hasn’t yet taken human form and can’t or won’t take it, out of cowardice or something even worse.

It’s impossible to watch these characters make toys of each other, suck the life out of one another, without squirming in your seat or outright recoiling. Whatever it is about yourself you find most humiliating, that you try hardest to conceal or repress, “Creditors” will likely tap into: stubborn suspicions, crippling doubts, desperate gullibility, shameful lust, bitterness rotted into malevolence.

Joseph Patrick O’Malley (left) and Rebecca Dines in Aurora Theatre’s “Creditors.”Photo: David Allen, Aurora Theatre

And yet, as Gustav draws out far more secrets from Adolph than a new acquaintance should be able to, as Tekla and Adolph lock bodies together as if to kiss, bite, spit on and push away from each other all at once, Damashek inspires not just revulsion, but revulsion’s equal and opposite. There’s an allure in her “Creditors” that’s more than schadenfreude or the mesmerizing quality of a train wreck or explosion. It’s the joy of seeing truth meticulously plotted and ruthlessly plumbed.

Watch just how long O’Malley’s Adolph maintains a genial grin as Williams’ Gustav punctures his every belief, undermines every lie Adolph’s constructed to prop up his marriage and career as a painter. No one should smile, when he says of his wife, “There she’d be, talking, laughing, entertaining, and all the time here’s me, sitting in the corner with no one for company but my own jealousy.” And yet O’Malley maintains an amiable air through that line and long past it. It disconcerts, yet the bold choice turns out to be the first of many strong ones, tautening what could be a talky, static drawing room exchange: What will finally make that smile strain and crack?

Jonathan Rhys Williams (left) and Joseph Patrick O’Malley in Aurora Theatre’s “Creditors.”Photo: David Allen, Aurora Theatre

Strindberg’s notorious misogyny gets one of its most vivid manifestations in “Creditors,” when Gustav likens the feminine form to “a fat boy with overdeveloped breasts,” “a badly made youth,” “a chronic anemic who hemorrhages regularly 13 times a year.” Yet Dines gives the flirtatious, playful Tekla the self-possession, the steely will to transcend the playwright’s limitations. You feel her character rolling her eyes at and casting off her author, soldiering on in spite of him.

She fights back like that till the end of the play, when Strindberg makes her cave, asking Gustav, “Do you despise me?” Damashek and Dines don’t quite make that tearful concession fit, and maybe it can’t fit. In a play that’s otherwise sublimely crafted, a new surprise or discovery with every thrust and parry, Strindberg lets one winner take all. If that’s a pure vision, it’s also a simple one. But the way Williams revels in the part, wielding a villain’s lines with a hero’s righteousness, that limitation is a price worth paying. He keeps punching after a knockout, keeps charging after his bill’s been paid.