John W. Lowell’s The Letters – Interrogation Russian Style

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.

Letters_0247Set 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.

Letters_0550We 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.

Letters_0285The 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

The Letters
Metro Stage
1201 North Royal Street
Alexandria, VA

About Charlene Giannetti (929 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "19 Daniel Highway," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.