Could the person you are at age 20 begin to predict who you turn out to be at 55? If each somehow met the other on a street, would either of them take a second look in passing before reaching the reassuring but mistaken conclusion, "Nah, that couldn't be me"?
In Creeds, local author Richard Krawiec's fictionalized account of the 2001 Robert Hanssen FBI spy affair, Hanssen's wife, Bonnie, tries to get a message back to her younger self once she realizes (at about the same time as the readers of The New York Times and The Washington Post) she's been betrayed by her dangerously unstable double agent of a husband. Her plaintive warning from the future: Don't be so sure—not of your husband, your family, your faith or your God.
By the first scene, Robert has already been condemned to a life sentence in a federal maximum security prison after selling secrets to the KGB for 22 years. But Bonnie (a steely Lori Mahl) is clearly serving her own life sentence as well: reliving her past, threading through a series of events for any moment that could have changed the whole story, and watching as the possibilities slowly slip through her fingers.
The challenge here, not only for Krawiec but director Paul Paliyenko and his cast, is to create a theatrical bridge that an audience can follow these characters across. It's a conveyance that connects and takes us from our conventional shared reality to one that is anything but. Generally in theater, the more gradual a script's transitions are, the more insidious the effect is—and the more believable it is when a character claims not to know exactly how her circumstances became so extreme.
In places, that bridge is solid here. After a series of exasperating arguments with her younger self (an unshakable Jessica Ann Heironimus), the older Bonnie squares off against her rock-ribbed conservative mother, one of two nightmares actor Christine Rogers convincingly animates in this production. When that character demands, "Who do you think you are?" at the height of the argument, Bonnie yells back what she's just realized: She hasn't a clue. It's the moment Bonnie learns that in her lifelong obedience to her parents, church and husband, she's consistently been discouraged from thinking critically and acting decisively for herself.
But elsewhere, the connections between other characters' worlds and ours are far more tentative. When we first meet Robert Hanssen, he's already gibbering conservative gender-role shibboleths at his wife to mask his own pathological issues involving sadomasochism, betrayal and a sexual inferiority complex that draws him toward what could be termed elective self-cuckoldry. With that as a starting point, actor Ryan Ladue has a much harder time establishing a plausible behavioral baseline before his character delves further into the extreme.
Plus, the relationship between Robert and Jack (Philip Semanchuk), his high school pal, sexual surrogate and father figure stand-in, remains far too unexplored, in script and on stage, for us to buy into. Finally, episodic scenes in which an older Robert (Jeff Alguire) goes to pieces in solitary confinement begin so early and with such velocity that there's little room left for them to develop in intensity throughout the show.
It's clear, though, that Krawiec knows what we don't wish to acknowledge: The essence of tragedy lies in our inability to change it. One of his characters refers to this as "the collapse of all other possibilities." In Creeds' too-brief but hellish denouement, a character who has ceded so much to the moral discretion of others confronts, at last, her own day of reckoning, alone. Her experience recalls the warning of Camus: "Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Who do you think you are?"