Guiltless people have nothing to fear from a little scrutiny.
John W. Lowell wrote The Letters 15 years ago, but it wasn’t performed until 2009. Current events concerning government surveillance, interrogation techniques, and downright paranoia make this play seem extremely relevant. No surprise that it is being performed more frequently around the country. Kudos to Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin for bringing this gem of a play to Metro Stage in Alexandria through June 14.
Set in 1930s Russia during Stalin’s regime, the play is a fictitious account of a real life event – the sanitizing of Tchaikovsky’s letters where the musician expressed his love for men. Anna, one of the editors in charge of the project, is summoned to the Director’s office. Anna is smart enough to know that these meetings rarely end well so from the moment she enters the room – a utilitarian government office that, thanks to lighting effects, seems sinister – she’s on her guard. As Anna, Susan Lynskey gives the outward appearance of a frightened bird, but as the play progresses, she exhibits a steely resolve. There’s no doubt that the Director has underestimated her, much to his own peril.
We quickly grasp that for the Director, it’s just another day at the office, just another interrogation where he can put to good use the bullying techniques he honed during his time in the military. Michael Russotto’s Director is an imposing presence and even when he’s leaning back in his chair, attempting small talk with Anna, he seems ready to pounce. He uses various maneuvers to unhinge Anna, whether perusing papers on his desk, pointedly ignoring his ringing desk phone, or moving her from one office chair to another. Anna clutches her small, black purse in front of her in an effort to ward off his increasingly aggressive verbal assaults.
The exchange begins on a friendly note, the Director complimenting Anna on her editing skills and hard work. Soon, however, the conversation veers into dangerous territory involving two of Anna’s co-workers, one of whom may have copied documents and spirited them from the building. Anna’s protestations that she barely knows either man, particularly the younger fellow who is the suspect, fall apart making Anna a possible accomplice. Just when the Director attempts to close the case, however, the tables are turned.
This is what theater is all about: an intelligent script by Lowell, expertly directed by John Vreeke, with two actors making the most of the material. Russotto and Lynskey are a brilliant team. This is play with many twists and turns and the actors take us along on a thrilling 70-minute ride that will spark many conversations in the days to follow.
Photos by Chris Banks
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