Aurora Theatre stages Strindberg’s intense ‘Creditors’

By Jean Schiffman on February 3, 2019

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Many of the works of the dark and often misogynistic 19th-century Swedish playwright August Strindberg can be hard for contemporary American audiences to love.

“Creditors,” with its convoluted dialogue and inherent melodrama, may be one of those.

That said, Scottish playwright David Greig’s new version of the three-hander “Creditors” goes a long way toward making the intense psychological drama palatable.

And Aurora Theatre Company’s production, directed by Barbara Damashek, couldn’t be better.

As the action begins, and continues to play out it in real time, the clearly — maybe too clearly — manipulative Gustav (an effortlessly smooth Jonathan Rhys Williams, who’s a Christoph Waltz lookalike) is befriending the sickly artist Adolph (played with impressive vulnerability and nervous energy by Joseph Patrick O’Malley).

The two have met in the parlor of a seaside hotel, where Adolph and his wife, the novelist Tekla (the always wonderfully expressive and resourceful Rebecca Dines), are on a summer holiday.

In the course of the conversations between the two men, during which Tekla is away, Gustav has apparently wheedled his way into Adolph’s life in a manner that appears to us (but not, at first, to Adolph) to be shockingly malevolent.

Gustav has advised him on his art (inspiring Adolph to switch from the “dead” medium of painting to sculpture; “Finally I’m alive!” exults Adolph) and is now making insidious inroads into the artist’s illness (suggesting Adolph has epilepsy and is in fact about to die) and, most pointedly, his marriage (insisting that flirty Tekla can’t possibly really love him).

Eventually the gullible Adolph says, weakly, “You’re pulling my guts out,” and, later, “I feel like you’re trying to steal my soul.”

But Gustav is relentless, and the tension builds inexorably over the course of 95 minutes without intermission.

In Strindberg’s carefully crafted dialogue, the two men weave in and out of unsettling arguments about the power dynamics between men and women. Did Adolph turn independent-minded Tekla into a free thinker or vice versa? Who reshaped whom? Who is the stronger?

The long, talky scene, in which the playwright’s pen is all too evident despite Greig’s natural-sounding translation, is never static, thanks to Damashek’s sure hand; the players move about quite fluidly on designer Angrette McCloskey’s elegant and uncluttered period-perfect set.

When Tekla arrives on the scene, the dynamics change; she’s a force of nature, and the only emotionally honest one of the three characters. Dines makes every second count.