Paul Haley and Denise Poirier, right, rehearse a scene from “Pack of Lies” with Sophie Urey. Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A play opening this week at Good Theater examines what happens when Russian spies infiltrate the domestic affairs of another country.

It’s not a new play and it’s not set in America, but it raises timely issues about the truth and trust and what happens to friendships when the truth is blurred and trust is broken. “Pack of Lies,” by the recently deceased English playwright Hugh Whitemore, who wrote for the stage and the BBC, is based on a true story from London in the 1960s.

Brian Allen, artistic director of Good Theater, wanted to present it in Portland during this election season when so much of the political talk is about truth and lies and the insidious impact of perpetuating falsehoods. “This year, it’s absolutely perfect,” Allen said. “This being an election year, a play about the evils of lying seemed like a really good thing to do. It’s a great story, it’s true and it’s a really fun play.”

Whitemore wrote it in 1983, based on a true story from the early 1960s. In real life, British intelligence authorities placed agents in the home of a suburban London family to spy on their friends and neighbors, who were part of successful and notorious Soviet espionage network known as the Portland Spy Ring. In Whitemore’s hands, the fictional version that plays out in “Pack of Lies” leads viewers to question if we ever really know and whether we can ever really trust our friends, colleagues and neighbors – or even our own family members.

Are they who they say they are? And once we learn the truth, is it more important to honor the truth or protect your friends?

In a long-ago review, The New York Times described the play as being about “the morality of lying” and Whitemore’s portrayal of lying as “a virulent disease.”

Denise Poirier, center left, and Heather Elizabeth Irish rehearse a scene. Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Allen assembled an experienced cast. Paul Haley and Denise Poirier portray the unsuspecting couple, whose home is taken over by the MI5 to surveil the neighborhood. Kathleen Kimball and Chris Holt are the spy couple in the neighborhood. Tony Reilly plays the MI5 agent. The cast also includes Casey Turner, Heather Irish and Sophie Urey.

Poirier’s character, Barbara Jackson, is given little information about what’s really going on, and struggles to keep her family together, balancing her duty to crown and country with her feelings of helplessness as an ordinary citizen to stand up to the state.

“From her perspective, it’s about the license of state over the power of individual. How much can she say and do to protect her family and daughter and her own well-being? She feels like it’s being forced on them,” Poirier said. “My character is frustrated because of how little they are told about what is going on, and their lives are just taken over.”

It’s been an interesting play to work on from the perspective of technology, Reilly said. The spy technology at the center of the true story in the 1960s was microdots, tiny bits of text or images that are so small they can’t easily be detected by people out of the know. When the play debuted in 1983, email and other forms of accessible electronic communications popular with spies today were relatively nascent.

“Now it’s done on the internet, and the level has gotten exponentially crazy. It’s not just Russia, it’s China, it’s Iran, it’s anybody with a computer,” he said.

Reilly’s character has his own issues with the truth. The agent coerces his way into the unsuspecting couple’s home, and deceives them with falsehoods about why he’s there and what’s he’s looking for.

Reilly has enjoyed reading about the people at the heart of the real-life story, both the spies, whose real names were Morris and Lona Cohen, and the MI5 agent he portrays. The American-born Cohens – she was born in Massachusetts and he was born in New York – were vital Kremlin assets in the Cold War, and also were involved with smuggling atomic bomb diagrams out of Los Alamos. They were convicted and jailed, and treated as heroes in the Soviet Union, their images honored on Russian stamps.

“Pack of Lies” puts today’s discussion about Russian hacking in context, Reilly said. The 19 Russians indicted in the Mueller report might be seen as the modern-day equivalents of the Cohens, he said.

That’s why Allen chose this play now. “Back then, it was just a play about a domestic incident. Today, it’s much more a commentary about where we are in the world. In some respects, the play is more relevant 35 years later than when it was originally done,” Allen said.

Poirier enjoys the period feel of the piece. “It’s pure kind of drama, a la the ’70s film dramas. It feels like the whole spy thing, with people experiencing the dark undercurrent of real life.”

Good Theater presents the play at the St. Lawrence Arts Center through March 8.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: