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Thus far, the La Jolla Playhouse’s season has been forgettable. In Terrence McNally’s slight Unusual Acts of Devotion and Claudia Shear’s not-ready-for-prime-time Restoration, the sets — for good or ill — were more memorable than the plays; Herringbone and The 39 Steps, a curio and a diversion, stressed performance over theme. None of these plays dared to engage large emotions, in the characters or in us.

Doug Wright’s expert adaptation of Strindberg’s drama The Creditors ups the stakes. In this stormy folie á trois, love becomes mere economics, and mental cruelty, once unleashed, assumes a life of its own.

Seven years ago, after he taught her taste and refinement, Gustav’s wife Tekla took a lover and not only dumped Gustav, she wrote a libelous tell-all about him. The book became a best seller, Gustav a national villain. Humiliated on the streets and in the classroom, where he taught “dead languages,” Gustav vowed revenge.

Gustav — and the misogynistic Strindberg — swears that Tekla’s a vampire of souls (the idea appears in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: when the doctor kisses a demon disguised as Helen of Troy, he shouts, “Her lips suck forth my soul!”). For seven years, Gustav’s certain, Tekla stole his talents. He gave, she took. He was the “creditor.” She tore up the receipts.

Tekla’s second husband Adolf also sees himself as a creditor. Now an invalid — Tekla stole his energy? — Adolf taught her to write and, by calling in favors from critics, helped forge her literary reputation. But as in her first marriage, Tekla’s begun to gaze beyond her vows.

Both men define themselves as victims. They’d much rather scapegoat Tekla than admit culpability. That they see love as a commercial exchange — a keeping score, rather than a mutual giving — indicts them. They refuse to acknowledge that in any punctured relationship, each side digs half the hole.

Along with soul theft, Strindberg became fascinated by a demented form of autosuggestion: using hypnosis and insistent repetition, so the theory went, one could induce negative thoughts and debilitating physical symptoms in another (Strindberg believed, for example, that Iago used autosuggestion on Othello). As part of his revenge on Tekla and her husband, Gustav tries to implant epilepsy in Adolf. The ploy’s certainly a stretch. And even Gustav’s surprised at how well he succeeds.

For the La Jolla Playhouse, Robert Brill devised a stately seaside resort’s day room (though his antsy lighting telegraphs important moments, Japhy Weideman’s design includes the hypnotic flickering of water images on gray tile). Long, wooden wheelchairs suggest infirmities throughout the building. Stage right, the playwright provides a constant visual comment on the proceedings: the unfinished sculpture of a naked woman. It’s of Tekla who, even after we meet her, remains somewhat incomplete. The statue also underscores a leitmotif: all three characters are, or wish they were, the sculptor; and each, in different ways, is as malleable as clay.

The 90-minute piece unfolds, almost musically, in three movements: Gustav’s lengthy indoctrination of Adolf; Tekla and Gustav’s reunion; Adolf and Tekla’s final confrontation. The play, even with Wright’s crisp translation, feels long-winded. What director Wright does beneath the dialogue, however, fascinates.

Every exchange is a contest of wills. At any given moment one will rise and the other sink: Tekla grabs control, then Adolf trumps her, or by means of some deft twist, Gustav vaults up several rungs. As each works to dominate the other, the actors reveal a growing desperation — a sense of the battle being lost, more troops needed, change the rules of engagement. Strindberg believed that all human interaction, every second, was a “mental struggle for domination.” Wright and his fine cast create an uncivil war.

In a spellbinding performance, T. Ryder Smith gives Gustav a precise, patient surface not always able to conceal the volcano within. As tormented Adolf, Omar Metwally flips from assertion to grave hurt, often using the latter as his best control tactic. By the time she enters, given Strindberg’s descriptions, one would expect Tekla to swoop down on a broom, with fangs for teeth and snakes for hair. Instead, in Wright’s balanced staging, Kathryn Meisle is lively and vital (albeit too young to hear she’s “too old to take a lover”). Her Tekla’s capable of everything Strindberg says, but Meisle gives Tekla equal time in what have been unequal partnerships from the start.

The Creditors by August Strindberg, translated by Anders Cato, adapted by Doug Wright
La Jolla Playhouse, Potiker Theatre, UCSD
Directed by Wright; cast: Kathryn Meisle, Omar Metwally, T. Ryder Smith; scenic design, Robert Brill; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Jill B.C. DuBoff
Playing through October 25; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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