Adolph (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) is the patron saint of second husbands. He’s as unseeing and innocent as a cuckold, and on the verge of becoming one. While his wife Tekla’s (Rebecca Dines) been out of town, he’s had the great misfortune of befriending the wrong man. Gustav’s (Jonathan Rhys Williams) spirit is animated by the same serpent that whispered, “Eat that apple!” in Eve’s ear. Gustav has an agenda: he’s there to play mind games with the defenseless Adolph. In August Strindberg’s Creditors — at the Aurora Theatre through March 3 — the playwright has invested Gustav’s soul with enough bitterness and vitriol to rival de Laclos’ Madame de Merteuil.
It’s no surprise that, late in the play, Gustav turns out to be Tekla’s scorned, first husband. She left him for Adolph. In the first act, he peppers his conversation with allusions about her character, intimate ones that only a husband would know. As types of men, they’re a study in contrasts. Professionally and personally, the older man, Gustav, was a teacher and father figure to Tekla. But instead of staying duty-bound as a wife and homemaker, she liberated herself from that role. She remarries Adolph, a successful but sickly painter — he limps and seems to suffer from some undisclosed ailment — and becomes his equal. Tekla publishes a successful first novel that details all of Gustav’s faults. Chief among them, he doesn’t come to know or understand her.
Henrik Ibsen, Strindberg’s contemporary, wrote about similar marriages in Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. And the 21st-century playwright Lucas Hnath turned Nora Helmer into a novelist in A Doll’s House, Part 2. Hnath also softens Nora’s husband Thorvald. Years after leaving him, she returns to find Thorvald still befuddled by his wife’s leave-taking. Strindberg isn’t as generous with Gustav. The playwright doesn’t have any interest in reconciliation. He and Gustav are out for revenge (Strindberg had three unsuccessful marriages). Throughout the first act, Gustav forcefully suggests — he’s not very subtle — that Tekla’s coquettishness indicates her intent to cheat. Having ridden a ferry with her earlier in the week, Gustav tells Adolph that she was flirting with a young man. He plants doubt about her ability to be faithful, and he ought to know!
Nowadays, It’s rare to find an adult character like Adolph who’s so open to the power of suggestion, an open-hearted naif. That’s really the only way to account for his willingness to believe and trust a man he’s only recently met. He talks with Gustav about going to literary parties with his famous wife, and his sense of isolation when he’s at them. Adolph doesn’t begrudge Tekla her freedom, but something about their dynamic bothers him. Or is he just feeling itchy because he’s reached an impasse — i.e. painter’s block — with his art? Either way, when Gustav suggests celibacy as a necessary cure for what’s making him ill, Adolph foolishly considers the idea.
Creditors moves like a carefully choreographed waltz through three acts. The third is a battle of wits between Gustav and Tekla, who, after a strained marital reunion in the second act, figures out that her ex is the one who’s been pecking at Adolph’s soft, permeable skin. In David Grieg’s new version of Strindberg’s play, the word creditor appears at least once in every act. As a mot juste, it’s meant to account for Gustav’s fury and his plan to unleash torrents of brimstone and hellfire. He tells Tekla that she owes him for the pain she’s caused. He’s there to extract a pound of flesh. Gustav doesn’t care if it’s a chunk of Adolph’s weak heart or one of Tekla’s tear-stained cheeks. He just wants the debt, that’s way past due, to be paid in full.
Creditors, through March 3, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $35-$70; 510-843-3822 or auroratheatre.org.