The term “sexual predator” is all over the news of late, but more than a century ago August Strindberg created a character even more powerful and terrifying — the sexually charged “psychic murderer.” In his 1887 essay of the same name, the Swedish playwright described a type of sexual warfare where the winner could, through intellect and sheer force of will, “coerce a more impressionable psyche into submission.”
Strindberg’s Creditors, in the Touchstone at American Players Theatre through November 19, is a dramatic illustration of that misogynous theme, where one diabolical man seeks—and gets— revenge on his ex-wife and her new husband. To do so, he meticulously gets inside their minds, identifies their weaknesses, plays on their deepest fears, and then destroys them from within.
This extraordinary character study is a difficult way to end the season, but it’s also a treat to watch a masterclass with three of APT’s most gifted actors. Core Company members Jim DeVita, Tracy Michelle Arnold, and Marcus Truschinski each turn in stunning performances as the expert manipulator and his prey. On a nearly bare stage, unencumbered by the elaborate sets, enormous costumes, and stage magic that characterized some of their work in earlier productions this season (Pericles, Cyrano de Bergerac, A View from the Bridge) this intimate show provides no place for the actors to hide—their characters’ desires, foibles, passions, and blindspots are all exposed; as several lines in the play suggest, they are laid bare like “an open wound.”
As Adolph, the young artist who has recently lost his confidence and his vision, Marcus Truschinski is a mess. He runs rough fingers through his unkempt hair, his bloodshot eyes are ringed with deep, dark circles, his face red and raw. Leaning on a crutch, wearing clothes stained with paint smudges, he works on sculpting a female nude. He has been “pushed” in a different aesthetic direction by his new friend—a doctor visiting the beachside resort where Adolph and his wife Tekla return each year, to commemorate their initial meeting.
In a tailored, gray, three-piece suit, Jim DeVita precisely cuts the figure of a mentor, a concerned third party who wants to get to the root of his young friend’s trouble and help him overcome his anxieties, in both art and marriage. But of course his real objective is not so benevolent.
Over the course of just a few hours, DeVita’s Gustav has plumbed the depths of Adolph’s every weakness and heightened his insecurities, planting fictitious wrongs, and even diseases in his fertile, unsettled mind. As the doctor becomes more sure of his “diagnosis” and more prescriptive for its cure, Truschinski’s boyish artist crumples like an exhausted child. Disoriented and despondent, he watches helplessly as his new friend’s ridiculous predictions of his wife’s inconstancy play out, one by one.
As Tekla, the playful but needy older woman, Tracy Michelle Arnold is just as easily manipulated by DeVita’s Gustav—actually her first husband—who casually strikes up a conversation with her in passing at the resort. With the benefit of time to nurture his anger and his need to hurt her and his replacement, the practiced former lover is deft as a surgeon. He wastes not one word as he similarly plays on Tekla’s nostalgia for their earlier passion, her insecurities about how attractive she is, and her irritations with her current husband. The moment she recognizes his endgame, all coquettish charm drains from Arnold’s face. The turning point of the show, it is stark and painful.
And though we know he is a demon, watching DeVita plant the bombs in these minefields so carefully and precisely is fascinating. A logical, warm, concerned friend one moment, with a flash of his dark eyes and a hard set of his jaw, he revels in detonating each explosion and delights as he surveys the damage.
Underneath the psychological warfare, sound designer Lindsay Jones has placed a faint beating heart and the rhythmic pounding of resort’s ocean waves, reminding the audience of the fragility of our physical and emotional selves. Similarly, Robert Morgan’s brilliant scene design consists of a clear blue field that changes subtly as DeVita goes for the jugular in each conversation. What first looks like the reddish reflection of a sunset on an azure lake morphs into muddy stains of purple, like blood in the water.
Making these metaphors literal in the final moments of the show feels unnecessary and heavy handed, particularly in a production that capitalizes on the subtlety of the long con. Still, Creditors is an astonishing credit to Maria Aitken’s measured direction and the actors who embody this doomed triangle of love, betrayal and revenge.